(Editor’s Note: Sadly, it appears that due to the neighbors no longer wanting to be surrounded by fish fry odors, this restaurant is no longer serving hamsi. We will update if things change.)
Around the time that hamsi, our favorite little fish, appear in the markets of Istanbul in late fall we become restless for the Black Sea-style cooking we’ve been missing since the previous season. Hamsi (fresh anchovies) are not the only thing to eat in a Black Sea restaurant, but eating in one that doesn’t have hamsi sometimes feels like sitting down for a meal in a BBQ joint that only serves coleslaw.
So as the hamsi start swimming our way, we make up for lost time, revisiting last year’s favorite restaurants and hunting down new discoveries. A recent quest to expand our network of hamsi spots led us to the most pleasant kind of Istanbul dining experience, in which a restaurant in a stunning setting (of which Istanbul has many) is, despite its prime location, run in an utterly down-home way, serving food that is as close to home as you can get. That is the real-estate contradiction that we found at Hanegah on the At Pazarı in Fatih.
Once a horse traders’ market, the wide, plaza-like At Pazarı is one of the most pleasant spots we’ve found in the Fatih area. Closed to traffic, the square is lined with cafés, restaurants and trees, while cats and children in white-bibbed school uniforms roam freely. At the four corners of the block are handsome 19th-century brick buildings with Ottoman-style flourishes. At the top end of the street, a classic teahouse run by two unwed brothers occupies a disheveled space in one of the four buildings. At the bottom of the street, from one of the structures – which has been nicely restored – the smell of fried hamsi wafted out, catching the attention of both the cats and passersby. “Today, there seems to be hamsi,” we heard a man carrying a rolled up carpet on his shoulder say as he walked past.
“Boşver!” – never mind! – Hanegah’s owner, İlyas Akyıldız, shouted at his son. It was nonsense that he would not fry up hamsi in his kitchen just because some of the neighbors complained of the smell. As a man from the town of Çayeli, on the Eastern edge of Turkey’s Black Sea, eating hamsi was his God-given right. He filled the doorway in a worn gray double-breasted suit and mock turtleneck, bellowing at his son, who was bussing tables nervously. He was agitated at the thought of any complaint against his dear hamsi.
İlyas and his family opened the business less than two years ago and live in a flat above the dining room. He admits that he has not adjusted to city life and prefers Çayeli’s tea fields and his village home, where the smell of hamsi frying will bring neighbors bearing gifts, not complaints. He interlocked his fingers in a common gesture. “This place is so crowded!”
As the hamsi fried we happily munched on other Black Sea staples, including cornbread and a particularly spicy batch of pickles served on glazed clay plates. Soon came muhlama, which we first had, memorably, in a rural home not far from Çayeli. And like that one, Hanegah’s muhlama – Black Sea fondue, as some like to call it – felt like that rare embellishment in an otherwise austere diet: Rich, pungent butter smothering a thick deck of cheese cut with cornmeal fried in a small skillet so that it gives with ease to the preferred scooping device, a piece of bread.
Soon that long-awaited guest, the hamsi, arrived at our table. Tossed in cornmeal and lightly fried, the finger-length fish were fanned out on the plate like a deck of cards. Thin lashes of crispy onions clung here and there, adding an unexpected twist to the dish. Though still a bit smaller than the fish served at the height of the season, these had the tasty je ne sais quoi of Black Sea hamsi, as opposed to the less flavorful ones caught in the Marmara Sea.
The fish were eaten by hand, the muhlama with scoops of bread. It was not until the Laz böreği arrived that we considered silverware. Laz böreği, a square of thin sheets of phyllo dough stuffed with custard and soaked in syrup, is agreeable for obvious reasons. We’ve encountered very few that we didn’t enjoy but the one served at Hanegah stood out for us. Like the top of a crème brûlée, the paper-thin top layer of our Laz böreği cracked like glass, giving way to its soft and creamy center, which got softer and creamier as we proceeded to spoon it out.
İlyas sauntered out with a cheap Samsun brand cigarette in his mouth, having just finished a big plate of hamsi himself. He exchanged niceties with other tables and comped a few teas. The lunch hour was nearly over. A country boy who grew up working in the misty tea fields of the Black Sea, he’d held a lot of jobs in his life. He even did a stint as a religious instructor in New Jersey, he told us, although he couldn’t conjure a word of English anymore. Here in his new home, in this crowded city, İlyas may feel like an awkward fish out of water, but as far as we’re concerned, the slow country-style lunch we had at his restaurant felt like a homecoming.
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