Spending fair amount of time around the Kadıköy market I have inevitably learned a good deal about its inner workings. Way beyond great places to eat and shop for food I discovered not-at-all obvious spots to buy creamiest kaymak, unbranded olive oil that beats most of the upscale brands and cheese leftovers for delicious borek on thr cheap. I have also learned who is sourcing from whom: where Çiya is buying its pickled wine leaves from or who delivers lemons to the makers of the first rate lemonade at Fazıl Bey. And this is how – through a common vendor – I have found my new favorite fish restaurant in Kadıköy.
Kadıköy market is reputed for its fish mongers selling high quality fish. I have been getting mine at Marmara Balik. One winter evening I strolled down the market and stumbled upon a store crowded by those returning home after a day at work and anticipating a dinner of fresh fish picked from the trusted fish monger. In Kadıköy it is easy to know if the shop is worthwhile – look for a crowd of middle-aged ladies and gentelmen. Marmara Balik had that very crowd.
With no further analysis İ selected my fish, explained how I am going to cook it, got my number and stayed to patiently wait for my sea-bass to be cleaned and my number to be announced so that I could pick my purchase, pay and bid the farewells. It was the only time I had to wait there: all men working there remembered me and ever since have been offering me tea and preferential treatment so that my fish can be peeled without much waiting. This is why I live in Istanbul: for it being full of such affordable luxuries as fresh fish which is trimmed, peeled and filleted for you to your liking so that you can enjoy the most pleasant part of dealing with fish – cooking and then savoring it! Without waiting in a queue!
Early mornings when I come to Marmara Balik with my cooking class participants to shop for the ingredients I always meet a well dress man placing order for a few cases of assorted fish. “We have a restaurant nearby”, – he explained once. “And this is our fish monger, I buy from them fresh fish every day”. And as unenthusiastic as I am about the enthusiastic fish restaurant patrons who seem to always have a menu handy and a few words to lure you in their shop I nodded with any enough politeness. “Look”, he pointed at the case of silver sardines. “They are in season and so good right now. So rich in phosphorus, so good for you. We fillet and grill them”. Now, he got my attetion. His sardines sounded more attractive than the whole deep-fried affair you normally find when it comes to small fish in Istanbul. So I took his card and to his wish, “Hope you will come one day” I said “Inşallah!!”.
A few months down the line I convinced Özgür we must try the place. It took a while to find it in the labyrinth of the backstreets of Kadıköy Rıhtım – it helped I did not take the card with me of course. But the longer I live in Turkey the more trust I develop to the local knoweldge. I figured there can’t be many fish restaurants in the area and locals would steer us in the right direction which was exactly what happened. Everyone seemed to know.
When I saw the sight of “Balikci Lokantasi” (Fish Monger’s Canteen) with the familiar logo of the Marmara Balik I felt victorious. The place had an ultimate canteen setup indeed: backstreet location, no alcohol served, humble yet clean interior, clients most working nearby and rather cheerful staff. I went to examine the display of fish – sea bass, sardines, red mullet all peeled and trimmed and ready to be grilled; fillets of monk fish and Black Sea salmon looked rather intriguing too. I inquired about the preparations and when I heard the word “kavurma” (braised) I did not need to look no further. So I ordered Black Sea salmon kavurma. Özgür took red mullet and we got the sardines to share. It is the season, after all!
Before we knew a plate arrived to the table where – like yin and yang – two appetizers were arranged – deep red acı ezmesi and patlıcan ezmesi. You are supposed to take a bit of acı ezmesi with your bread, get the taste of the ripen tomato and then burn your mouth with hot peppers. Then – in a rush – dip your bread into the smooth eggplant paste for the yogurt in it soothes our burned moth. But then of course – like with every spicy thing – you wan to take more of that acı only to reach out for the eggplant immediately after. And so you go until the fish arrives.
Sardines were beautiful regardless the health benefits: two fillets were pressed against each other with their silver skins outside and arranged on the shredded lettice. They were so fresh and grilled so delicately that they turned the juiciest sardines I have eaten in my life. Then came Özgür’s red mullet, dipped into corn flour and fried: it was flavorful and flaky as only fresh fish can be. Now you can say fish is fresh at most Istanbul fish restaurants. So thought I before eating at Balikci Lokantasi.
Eventually, a steaming round clay pot arrived on the table – my kavurma! Caramelized onions, green peppers, mushrooms, tomato and cubes of Black Sea salmon – way more pale than its Norwegian brother – seasoned with red pepper flakes and dry thyme and some olive oil. I was the happiest person in the world burning my mouth with piping hot fish so colorfula flavorful and .. mine. I felt if I were to make kavurma this is exactly how the flavor would turn out. I felt so in tune with the dish, the meal and this humble fish canteen that for a while I lost myself.
Until I remembered helva. After fish you are supposed to eat helva along with the strong black Tea. To kill the fish in your stomach, as the locals say. “Shall we order sıcak helva?”, I winked at Özgür. Sıcak helva is sesame seed helva crushed and mixed with cream, grated green apple, sprinkled with chocolate chips and baked briefly. Viscid, sweet beyond words yet somewhat balanced with the sourness of the apple it was a perfect final accord to the perfect fish meal. Seeing the bill only confirmed my plan: I am going to be back and not even once.
Address: Rıhtım Cad. Teyareci Sami Sk. no. 20/1 Kadıköy (Lane behind Murat Muhallebicisi) Phone 0216 346 40 14