Rakı or Wine?
Also called aslan sütü (lion’s milk) and more similar to arak versus the sweeter version ouzo or pastis, rakı is our national drink. There are many brands to choose from, depending on whether you prefer a lighter (Mest) or a moderate (Efe) or a more robust (Tekirdağ) alcohol content. Rakı is available by the glass—(tek (single) or duble (double shot)—or by the 35cl or 70cl bottle. The average alcohol content of rakı is 45 percent. You can either drink it straight up or dilute with water and ice, which turns it to a milky color (thus its nickname). If ordering wine, do not expect to find a vast selection; only a limited amount of Turkish wines are available by the glass or bottle as rakı is predominately preferred at fish restaurants. The most common brands you will find are the top two producers: Doluca and Kavaklıdere.
The countless seafood restaurants in Istanbul run from the inexpensive, no-frills (salaş), and (in most cases) sans alcohol ones, the moderately-priced, family-style restaurants, to the downright expensive fine-dining establishments. Even though a majority of seafood restaurants are lined up along the Bosphorus strait on both sides of Istanbul as well as by the Marmara Sea, there are also many fine eateries that are just as good minus the view.
What to Expect
No matter which class of seafood restaurant you go to, you can pretty much expect the same ritual. Upon being seated, your waiter will turn over your serving plates, fill your water glasses, and ask what you would like to drink. (If alcohol is served, rakı is the preferred accompaniment to your meal.) Your waiter will then either list the choices of cold appetizers or bring over the selections on a tray (which is recommended so that you can see what you’re getting).
The most common cold appetizers and the ones you should definitely try are the beyaz peynir ve kavun (white cheese and melon), patlıcan salatası (smoked eggplant puree), midye dolması (mussels stuffed with rice), deniz börülcesi (samphire prepared with olive oil), lakerda (smoked bonito), and haydari (strained yogurt with dill). Other common cold dishes include shrimp, octopus, or squid, prepared with olive oil.
After the cold appetizers, the waiter will ask you about your salad preference: çoban (with tomatoes, onions, cucumbers) or a green salad (iceberg, romaine, arugula, parsley, etc.). While you’re devouring your appetizers and eating way too much bread, your waiter will ask what kind of fish you would like as a main course and what hot appetizers you would like to share. The hot appetizers are usually fish based and include tava (fried) or ızgara (grilled) calamari, hamsi (anchovies), or octopus; baby shrimp casserole in garlic sauce (karides güveç); and fish patties (balık köftesi).
Compared to other eateries, menus at seafood restaurants are most times not available or do not include prices. The reason for this is that appetizers and fish on offer change according to season and are priced as such.
The pièce de résistance of your extravagant meal is the fish! Most Turks prefer their fish either grilled or fried, with no sauces to mask the taste. Most seafood restaurants also have their own specialties, which include baking the fish in parchment paper or encrusting it with sea salt. Unless you specifically ask, you will be served an entire fish—head and all, with a side of onion and tomatoes slices, some greens, and a wedge of lemon. You can ask to have the fish deboned, order half a portion, or order one large fish to share.
It is always best to eat fish in season. However, this is not possible all the time. Additionally, farm-fed fish is less expensive compared to fresh fish from the sea. To find out what fish are in season click here!
So, how do you select your fish?
You can select your fish from the open display. The price is determined by whether it is farm-fed or from the sea, and by the kilo. Ask the price of the fish you are ordering if you don’t want any surprises when you ask for your check.
A meal at a fish restaurant is usually a long affair and lasts at least two hours by the time you order dessert and coffee. After a dizzying array of appetizers, fish, and rakı or wine, most probably you will not have room for dessert, so at least sharea dessert or two for a totally Turkish style experience. Almost all seafood restaurants have chocolate soufflé, sütlaç (rice pudding), baklava (layers of pastry with walnuts and covered with syrup), şekerpare (mini pastries in syrup), tulumba tatlısı (a sugary dessert covered with lots of syrup), and helva (halvah). According to season, kabak tatlısı (pumpkin dessert) or ayva tatlısı (quince dessert)doused with syrup with a side of kaymak (clotted cream) and topped with crushed walnuts will also be on the menu. On the lighter side, you can opt for a refreshing sorbet. The best way to end your meal is with a cup of Turkish coffee.
What to Eat Where - some suggestions:
Adem Baba – Balık Çorbası (Fish Soup)
Kıyı – Kılıç Şiş (Swordfish on a skewer)
Misina Balık – Kalkan Tandır (Tandoori style Turbot)
Set Balık – Levrek Sarma (Stuffed Sea bass) / Rokfor peynirli somon (Salmon with Roquefort cheese)
Takanik – Hamsi Tava (Fried Anchovies)