It's easy enough to associate Turkish food with kebabs, but fish is a whole different kettle altogether ain't it? Perhaps it is not that common in the rest of Turkey but Istanbul is surrounded by water on at least three sides, with the most beautiful body being the glittering sapphire of the Bosphorus Sea. The catch is often so fresh that fishmongers display them by showing off their vibrant red gills. The cats prowling the neighbourhoods would no doubt be satisfied by the quality as evidenced by their ample girths.
We were advised to visit Dolmabahce Palace along the Bosphorus Sea. It is a showcase palace, full of tributes from other countries and is decorated to the hilt with the best craftsmanship and materials of its time. The view was not too bad either.
Above, a detail from a bathroom of the alabaster floors.
Another place that we were advised to visit is Bebek. It is about 20-30 minutes drive from Taksim Square and is a whole different world altogether. Of luxury yatchs, elegant tea salons and villas with fantastic views, reminding me of Sausalito and other upscale waterside neighbourhoods. It was pouring madly the evening we visited, and we took refuge in the nearest fish restaurant, because well, one has to visit Bebek and eat fish, and found ourselves in Bebek Balikçi, an old-school and rather grand restaurant with a covered deck jutting into the sea. Even on a wet weekday night it enjoyed a good turnover with businessmen, couples and the occasional tourists like ourselves.
The menu was very short: starters to choose from a tray that the waiters, in black vests and long aprons, bring over to our table, option to have salads or not and then one's choice of fish simply cooked and served with maybe some boiled potatoes or steamed vegetables. We skipped the salads and enjoyed our Turkish wine with fat marinated sardines and marinaded vegetables. The fish prices were by no means cheap but heck we've came out all this way so we decided to live dangerously. I had fried turbot, my very first time eating turbot which even when I was studying in London I came to understand was a revered fish usually served with great ceremony. The fish is flat and generously oval in shape, and studded with barbacle-like protuberances which makes eating a bit fiddly yet the flesh is fine and very sweet. Husband had bluefish, a local favourite, it was fleshy and delicate in flavour.
On the way out we noticed an article pinned to a wall, in it was a list of the top ten fish restaurants in the city. Bebek Balickci was third. Korfez which we had reservations to but did not go in the end because I was too tired, was number 10. Number 1 was given to Kiyi which we did go to, on a beautiful sunny Sunday. Everyone was out to soak in the sun, and our taxi crawled painfully slowly for nearly an hour before we reached Tarabya Bay.
A word about the taxis in the city. First, the driver should use a meter. If there is a meter it should start at 2 liras unless it is night when the night rate start from 3 liras. The meter should not jump too fast, example from Eminonu to Taksim is less than 10 liras and from Taksim to Bebek is less than 20 liras. We knew we were conned when a journey from Taksim to Ortakoy which should cost less than 10 liras ended up as 25 liras, the meter was jumping in an erratic and unpredictable manner. The surest way to be conned is to hail a taxi which is waiting in front of a hotel or a tourist attraction. The driver will pretend that the place we wish to go is closed, or he will 'forget' to turn on the meter or take a long route. We fell for all of these tricks and learnt after a while to only hail passing taxis and to keep a close eye on the meter.
So there we were, enjoying the beautiful scenery of the blue sea, the Bosphorus Bridge and families out strolling or fishing along the coastline stretching to the bay while the taxi kept getting stalled in the one-lane traffic. The meter doesn't seem to tick much when the car is stationery and the driver had to resort to driving against the flow of traffic a few times, very dangerous, at those times the only thing to do is to close our eyes and hope for the best. Finally we reached the restaurant and husband gave him a good tip for his trouble. The driver must have appreciated it because 5 minutes later he returned with my umbrella which I had carelessly left behind.
Our lunch was superb. We ordered quite a few appetisers because it all sounded good- fried calamari, fried mussels, stuffed mussel (yes, just the one) and tarama. The waiters didn't speak much English but they were ever so helpful, telling us which fish was available -about 3 on the day of our lunch- and giving good advice, e.g. No, not the lobster because it is wildly expensive, and recommending cooking methods.
Above: tarama with toast. Pale orange, briny, delicious, worlds apart from the pink paste one finds in supermarkets. Also a giant prawn grilled to perfect succulence, a dish of tiny shrimps sauteed in spicy Turkish peppers and a whole grilled seabass. Not a wrong note anywhere, breads were replenished without us needing to ask, fresh cutlery supplied with every dish (we ended up with a stunning collection of unused ones), the waiters standing by yet not in the way and generally being totally sweet and accommodating. We cleaned our plates with a bit of regret, considered ordering more food, drank up our chilled white wine and were blissfully contented. The fact that we were sitting next to the window with a dreamy view of the boats floating in the marina did not hurt either.
We still had room for desserts. TWO desserts in fact. Of poached quince with milk ice cream. Oohlala it was good, the fruit on the bottom fresh and yielding while the compote on top firmer, jammier and a little spicy.
Steamed pumpkin with more of that incredibly rich milky ice cream and a shower of fresh chopped nuts. With some coffee to help us sober up for the trip back to town.
But not before joining the teenagers and kids with balloons on the marina for a little stroll. And then it was off in a taxi where I dozed a bit and opened my eyes just in time to see a big sign saying "Kanyon" which I have learnt from my friend the Internet is a trendy shopping mall. The words "please, please stop here" blurted from my mouth and he stepped on the brakes. We spent the rest of the day wandering its eerie lonely corridors, watching a lousy Hollywood movie (The Flock) and eating rubbish food at Wagamama.
Thus concludes our Istanbul eating adventures. Husband is still remarking on how good the food was, all the kebabs and baklavas that we'll meet in the future will have a hard time measuring up. If I am fortunate enough to return, I would spend my days along the coast doing nothing much at all, just whiling my time until the next meal comes along. That would be simply perfect.