We had a very good dinner with attentive service and breathtaking view at Doğa Balık the other day. I was very happy with the meal only that it has been my most expensive fish meal in Istanbul to date. 80 US dollars per person, excluding tip. This is what an appetizer and a main accompanied by a glass of good wine at a fine-dining restaurant such as Mikla would set you back to. Or for the half of that you will feast at our favorite Set Balık which is (I admit) located God knows where with no view but then has the most interesting fish menu in Istanbul at the unbeatable price. The experience made me reflect on how to dine expensively in Istanbul and not get disappointed. So here is my advice.
1. Don’t trust restaurant reviews
Let’s face it: most of the restaurant reviews suck. Yes, you heard me saying that. Does me having a fight with my husband just before the dinner make the restaurant we happen to go that night worse? Does me being way too generous with flashy words make a place I write about a better restaurant? No! This is why instead of relying on reviews I believe in developing dining intelligence, or understanding of general principles of how restaurants work so that you can make the best of any dining experience. Without reading a single review. Let me give you an example. I know that unless I go to a delicacy shop like Namlı for breakfast in Istanbul the chances they will serve high quality cheese and olives are pretty slim and I will be very very disappointed about the wasted opportunity to have a beautiful breakfast. That’s why if I absolutely need to have breakfast outside and there is no Namlı or alike around I will never order a breakfast platter. I would go for menemen which is hard to mess up. This is what I mean by dining intelligence. Back to the Doğa Balık though.
I have been wanting to go for ages. Someone said Aegean, someone mentioned meze of rare wild herbs. It was enough to get my attention. I went to do my research: to read the reviews. Hey, did not I just say not to trust reviews? Oh, yes! But did I say not to read them? I think it is important to gather all the information you can get to make an informed decision. I have learned not to take any review for what it is and look beyond. So reading a review I try to understand what kind of person has written that – the tone, the choice of words and – very importantly – details the person paid attention too are all good clues. If I can identify with that person the review gets some weight, if no – I discard it.
The reviews for Doğa Balık were mixed: some (including a few locals) were raving about the place – “best fish restaurant in Istanbul”, “fresh fish and unique meze” etc. And then there were a couple of disappointed voices “rip off”, “rude service for foreigners” etc. I find it typical for upscale restaurants to have mixed reviews: higher prices create inflated expectations and so if you sense a slightest under-delivery either in the food or service department you get disappointed for having paid that much. So what exactly does the reviews for Doğa Balık tell you? That the quoted locals seem to have a clue (one mentioned bringing business partners to the place – very good sign!) and that the restaurant is pricier that a regular Istanbul fish restaurant. I was about to give a go when Özgür recalled that he had brought a group of American doctors to the Doğa Balık’s first location in Cihangir a whole ago and it was a good experience. So he just made a reservation. End of thinking!
2. Understand the cost drivers
Once you grasp the economy of the restaurant and in particular what drives their cost (and your bill) you can order accordingly. In Doğa Balık they pride themselves on the quality and freshness of fish. Ibrahim Soğukdağ, the chef and proprietor of the place has been in fish business for long time and as a young boy he sold fish sandwiches in Eminönü long before the folks started turning good business with frozen Norwegian mackerel. So at Doğa Balık they claim fish freshly bought that day. Day after – no-no! What does it tell you? Ask anyone working at a restaurant kitchen (for instance, me) and you will be told that this is a really expensive practice which boosts the costs and results in the higher prices. That is why fish you will be eating in Doğa Balık – rather outstanding in its freshness and skillful preparation – will be one of the most expensive in Istanbul. So if you opt for half portion of our fish main you can reduce your bill significantly.
There is more to the cost of course. In Doğa Balık everything screams quality. They could have served Angora as most of the places in Istanbul do but they offer a way better Doluca’s coupage of two local Turkish grapes – Sultaniye and Emir. If you appreciate good wine you’d go for Doluca, I promise. And would pay more.
And then there is a view factor: the fish restaurant is located one of the higher roofs of Taksim it commands a stunning view over the Old City, the Bosphorus, Europe and Asia. Is there anywhere in Istanbul with the view and the view in not included in the bill? If you disagree you join Set Balık diners.
But the major cost driver at Doğa Balık may be your shyness. Doğa Balık like many Istanbul fish restaurants does not have a menu. Their business relies on the regulars and those in the know who need no explanations or menus. Or those who don’t mind splashing. Otherwise you can always ask the prices beforehand. And you can’t blame the restaurants if many people don’t.
3. Relax and enjoy
If after this basic analysis you are still here (walking out can be a choice, completely acceptable) you should sit down and enjoy. Because this is what the dining – expensive or not – is for. And Doğa Balık’s food is a sheer delight. Eggplant – wonderfully charred and turned into a smooth puree. Unconventional zucchini dolma (kabak bayıldı): carved out and deep-fried vegetable is stuffed with sauteed onions, red peppers and fresh greens – is insidiously light so that I knock down the whole plate at once. Then come assorted greens from the land and the sea – very wild and not very much so: samphire, sea beans, chard, purslane. 7-8 varieties in total. “Not so many”, the waiter comments. “As it is not really the season”. I nod understandingly: proclaimed by the family members as a queen of greens after my nettle pasta and results of foraging so ons I am impressed someone else is sharing my green passion.
Then appear the hot starters: as Özgür orders the same ones every time I really have sampled around enough to tell the excellent from the good. The prawns served sizzling in the clay pot were fresh and not disturbed by anything else than butter, garlic and red pepper flakes. Surprising was the squid – often times cut in rings, dipped in batter and then deep-fried in most of the Istanbul fish restaurants – it came grilled, soft and not chewy at all.
The real highlight was the fish though. Ozgur had grilled sole – that medium size flat fish without scales – and I had fener şiş - chunks of monk fish grilled on a skewer with tomato, green pepper and rocket salad leaves. “You are eating like a man”, Ozgur laughed. “I have never seen a woman eating like this”, – he said as with gusto I was digging my teeth into a juicy chunk of my monk fish, making a sound of utter satisfaction and then rapaciously looking at the next piece of fish I will bite into in a second. How else can you eat such flavorful fish?
Next to us another couple was sitting. They came later, without a reservation. So they did not get one of the two empty front tables they insisted on. Later in the night a middle-aged Turkish man showed up and was immediately ushered to the best table at the restaurant (“Reserved” sign and Japanese name on it was swiftly removed): the gentleman asked for a small bottle of raki and whatever they considered right to put on the table. Maybe it was someone like him writing a raving review for Doğa Balık? The lady on the other hand looked miserable the whole night. I could imagine that if she was to write a review she would not rave. But who would trust her anyway?
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