Diners in Istanbul are spoiled with options for fresh seafood. But most venues are mere caricatures of places like İsmet Baba, where traditions have been kept sacred for more than 50 years. While many other such restaurants are kitschy, İsmet is gritty and authentic. Located in Kuzguncuk, a charming neighborhood on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, it may not be the best restaurant in the city, but it’s got something most of the others have lost: old-school Istanbul charm and character.
The soft yellow light, rakı-fueled laughter and whiff of grilled fish emanating from İsmet Baba seem to pulse out over the Bosphorus, like a flashing neon sign reading “locals eat here.” Stepping inside, you can’t miss the framed panel by the door memorializing Orhan the Butcher, Mahmut the Bear, Blind Mustafa, Forty Lies Selim and other regulars who look from their pictures like they could be characters from a Turkish mafia movie. From the VIP table under the portrait of İsmet Baba, these Turkish goodfellas hold court over this simple, traditional fish restaurant as if it were their own clubhouse.
At İsmet Baba, we like to lean back, hunker down into a long rakı-laced dinner and really enjoy this special place. If the waiter doesn’t beat you to the bottle, the rakı (an anise-flavored liquor akin to ouzo), is poured first, then diluted with water and finally chilled with a couple of ice cubes (if desired). Disrupt the order – or, God forbid, top your glass off before it is fully empty – and the waiter will probably intervene. Traditionally, white cheese and melon are snacked alongside the first couple of drinks, while the meze tray circulates.
Alas, the meze tray; it only takes a few meals out in Istanbul to memorize most of its offerings, and İsmet Baba isn’t carrying any wild cards. However, the pilaki (beans in olive oil) and the cold octopus salad are unusually good. We also like the haydari, a thick, tangy spread of strained yogurt and dill, and the fried eggplant with a garlicky yogurt drizzle. Slices of lakerda, pickled tunny, are a must for many; on one visit, we ordered a second portion of this sashimi-like appetizer to go along with the main course. Cold sheep brains are not our favorite meze, but at İsmet Baba you can have them fried up as a smart little tempura-like dish, alongside calamari and a house specialty börek filled with spinach and potatoes.
The catch of the day and its price per portion are posted on a small blackboard in the dining room. The fried kalkan (turbot) can be a bit heavy after so many rounds of starters. We’ve found the çipura (grilled bream) and çinekop (bluefish) to be perfectly prepared and just the right amount of fish.
After the bottle is empty, and you’ve had your fill of Turkish coffee, don’t forget to nod goodbye to the framed picture by the door of the old codgers at the VIP table drinking to İsmet Baba and days long gone. They’ll keep an eye on the place, making sure nothing changes while you’re away.