(Editor’s Note: This guest post is by Jennifer Hattam, an American journalist living in Beyoğlu whose personal blog can be found here .)
My first encounters with Turkish fish menus were nothing short of perplexing, and not because levrek (sea bass), çupra (sea bream), kalkan (turbot) and the like were such unfamiliar names. Spoiled by a steady stream of exotic preparations back home in San Francisco – baked in red curry, encrusted with wasabi peas, topped by green mango salsa, drenched in oniony, mustardy yassa sauce – I had never put much thought to the fish itself.
I’ve come to better appreciate (and more easily identify) fresh fish cooked simply so that its natural flavors shine through, but though I hate to admit it, there’s still something I find a bit yawn-inducing about yet another whole fish with a squirt of lemon, no matter how expertly prepared.
That’s why my eyes went straight to the caramelized levrek on the menu at Lokanta Maya, without even knowing it was a house favorite. And for good reason. The flavors still aren’t flashy, but the hint of sweet orangey goodness in the crispy part of the skin tantalized portions of my taste buds I’d almost forgotten were there.
Jokes about the “two kinds of cheese” in Turkey – white and yellow – are common among the Roquefort-loving expat crowd, but after experiencing what Turkish cheese can taste like when served warm with almond chunks and caramelized onions, I may never complain about beyaz peynir again. My dining companions were equally pleased with their appetizer selections of rich chicken liver pate and mücver  (zucchini fritters), lightly fried in a soft batter so the vegetables maintain a satisfyingly stringy texture. A not-outrageously priced Umurbey Sauvignon Blanc  topped it all off nicely.
Chef/owner Didem Şenol’s contemporary twist on Turkish fare extends to the dessert menu, where the lemony tang of her crumbly şekerpare added welcome complexity to a dish that can be cloyingly sweet. Refreshing, almost sorbet-like mastic ice cream sandwiched between two wafers of kağıt helva struck a playful note.
Şenol’s focus on local, seasonal ingredients includes some rare on Turkish menus: I’ve seen asparagus so infrequently here that the word for it – kuşkonmaz – was completely unfamiliar. But her food achieves a balance that will satisfy diners’ yens for both tradition and innovation. The atmosphere likewise is stylish – rustic wooden tables, sleek hanging light bulbs – without feeling too posh for its working-class Karaköy location. (Make no mistake, though, this meal will set you back more than a kebab. And reservations are a must, even during the week.) The well-trained servers seem happy to speak their excellent English or indulge a foreigner’s not-so-excellent Turkish.
While waiting for my friends to show up for dinner, I browsed through Şenol’s sumptuous cookbook in Turkish and English. Tempted, I nevertheless declined to buy it: There will certainly be another chance on my next visit.
Address: Kemankeş Caddesi 35/A, Karaköy
Web: www.lokantamaya.com 
Hours: 12pm-5pm, 7pm-11pm; closed Sunday; Monday lunch only
(photo courtesy of Lokanta Maya)