On a night out in Istanbul, we often find ourselves forced to make sacrifices in one or more categories of the overall dining experience. Great food at reasonable prices will surely be laid out in a room decorated in Anatolian kitsch. Bosphorus views and contemporary furnishings are a license to gouge and serve up flaccid renditions from the world kitchen. In the alcohol category, settle for rakı or suffer the consequences. This is an oft-repeated refrain that most people in Istanbul can join in on. But tune it out and prod a little, and even the most contrary Istanbulite will reveal a place or two that checks all of the boxes. Cibalikapı Balıkçısı got the nod from a couple of trusted sources, which led us to a series of surprisingly great meals.
We’d seen the place dozens of times, but had never gotten a good feeling from this strip of the Golden Horn. The waiters in front of the restaurants flanking Cibalikapı Balıkçısı had pounced on us, flapping menus and hissing urgent, aggressive greetings when we’d tried to pass by. But perhaps it’s the low curb appeal of Cibalikapı Balıkçısı that keeps casual visitors away. You have to really want to go here and once you do, you’ll really want to return.
Career journalist Behzat Şahin set out to create the best meyhane possible while coloring within the lines, and we feel he has largely succeeded. Spread over three floors of a charming building with a squeaky wooden staircase, the dining rooms are cozy without being cramped. On the second and third floor, nearly every table has a view of the Golden Horn and the lights of Pera. The terrace, like most outdoor dining spaces in Istanbul, is the domain of cigarette smokers, but if the wind is in your favor, this is the best seat in the house.
But it’s Şahin’s attention to the menu and the delivery that set this restaurant apart. “Blue fish is blue fish. Grill it and it is good. But not everyone can make mezes. That’s our specialty,” said Serdar Bey, our server on one recent visit. The man behind the mezes is the somewhat eccentric Şahin, who seems to be on a mission from God to assemble the ultimate meze tray. In his life’s second work, he has assembled an eclectic collection of mezes researched or ferreted out on his travels. Materials are obsessively sourced from small producers he’s found throughout Turkey and whom he celebrates in a book about the restaurant’s food and recipes. The gruff Mehmet Usta, a cook from Kars who has been in the venue’s kitchen for 12 years, is responsible for crafting these dreams into meals, which he does with consistency.
This Oscar and Felix combination has brought many unusual mezes to light, along with above-par standards, such as samphire, nettles, dandelions and other greens prepared with garlic and olive oil. We tried a wide selection of smoked and marinated fish mezes, of which the sea bass marinated in mustard was something we’d enjoy in entrée size, while the balık pastırma, stiff and pungent, was one we wouldn’t order again. As good as beyaz peynir may be, the usual meyhane wedge of white cheese rarely attracts our interest. Nonetheless, we love the effect of beyaz peynir with our rakı, most of all when it plays straight man to a lively Anatolian pairing. Girit ezmesi, a muhammara-like paste of creamy Thracian beyaz peynir, chopped pistachios and walnuts, garlic and thyme, was the rimshot on the meze course.
The grilled calamari, in full torpedo form, along with grilled baby octopus, are both collected in the Aegean waters off of Ayvalık, across from the Greek island of Lesbos. Until we ate them here at Cibalikapı, we were quite certain that Greece had a monopoly on delicious octopus. These elegant sea creatures – with all their funky nooks and crannies charred pure white, having escaped the flame – were a beautiful and delicious reminder that most meyhane kalamar and ahtapot are little more than Filet-O-Fish.
As Serdar Bey said, blue fish may be blue fish, but it happens to be one of our favorites. But after a number of visits we still haven’t made it past the hot appetizers course. “Next time,” we always say, “we’ll have that lüfer or the luxurious turbot.” But, fully satisfied from the previous courses, we comfortably balk at the costly endeavor of it (which can easily reach 80 TL/person or more, depending on what is drunk alongside the fish). And even though this is a self-proclaimed fish restaurant, there’s no pressure to go for that sea bass. For us, that’s the mark of a meyhane’s excellence: providing a culinary choose-your-own-adventure for a range of different tastes and budgets, all under the same roof.