The Turkish term “usta,” which means master in the Jedi sense of the word, seems to have lost its meaning in Istanbul. Any fellow wandering the streets with a screwdriver in his pocket seems to enjoy the honorific. In the kitchen too, we’ve found, there are plenty of unchaperoned apprentices passing themselves off as the master of their domain. Thankfully, this is not the case at Tarihi Karaköy Balıkçısı (from here on out, T.K.B.)
A reliable supply of spanking-fresh fish helps, but we’ve come to appreciate the man at the helm, Muharrem Usta, as the main source of inspiration in this place. In nearly a decade of eating at this humble, laughably cramped restaurant nothing has ever been short of excellent. Incredibly, from the perfectly folded and skewered filets of sole to the way they peel the skin from the tomatoes in the salad, nothing has ever changed. The fingerprint of a real usta is in the details and it is what we come to expect at great restaurants.
For us, there are two fish soups in Istanbul. One is at Adem Baba  in Arnavutköy and the other is made by Muharrem Usta here at T.K.B. Teeming with tasty chunks of fish, diced potatoes, carrot slivers, bay leaves and lemon, T.K.B.’s balık çorbası is more like a hearty chowder. A simple salad of tomatoes and arugula dressed in rich earthy olive oil got us ready for the main event, fish.
The sea bass in parchment, or kağıtta levrek, arrived steaming in its paper vessel, the boneless flesh succulent and tender. A fragrance of tomatoes, peppers and lemon wafted out, the envy of the tiny dining room. A similar effect was created by the dil şiş, plump little fillets of sole that are rolled up and grilled on a skewer and that seem to be channeling a sea scallop with their sweet flesh and creamy texture. There might have been hamsi (anchovies) on the menu or a fresh palamut, but, as far as we are concerned, dil şiş and kağıtta levrek are Muharrem’s magnum opus, so that is what we always order.
A meal at T.K.B. might cost more than most rough-and-ready fish shacks down here on the docks, but craftsmanship and consistency cost a little extra. Since 1923, T.K.B. has been a Karaköy institution, with Muharrem in the kitchen for more than 20 years, reminding us all of what a master is really meant to be.
Address: Tersane Caddesi, Kardeşim Sokak 45/A, Karaköy
Open Monday through Friday, lunch only
(photo by Ansel Mullins)