Kemal’in Yeri: The Enchanted Garden
The neon sign in front of Kemal’in Yeri shines like a “Last Chance for Gas” sign seen on the highway before entering the desert. In your rearview mirror are the crowded tourist traps of the Galata Bridge. Ahead lie the shipyards and decrepit chandleries of the Golden Horn. But “Kemal’s Place” is not only the last place to eat on this stretch of the Golden Horn, it’s one of the last places in all of Beyoğlu where you can eat reasonably well on reasonable budget sitting outside beside the water without another hungry soul in sight.
The Turkish word bahçe, meaning garden, is used for nearly any type of outdoor area, from a narrow alley where people stand shoulder to shoulder smoking cigarettes to manicured lawns of Ottoman palaces. Kemal’s bahçe gives new meaning to the word, looking more like a clearing in a junkyard where you feel you might stumble upon a hobo encampment. Electric wiring strung among the trees sheds light on giant wooden spools that must have once been wound with something very thick, like perhaps a cruise-ship’s anchor chain. Now used as tables, these spools serve as a great place to set a drink down to feed one of the many cats and dogs who hang around there, mercifully too polite to beg. After the shop owners have shut their pull-down gates for the night, this enchanting spread is left to you, the animals, Kemal and his grill.On a recent evening, Kemal was taking it easy with some friends seated at a booth around one of the spools, but the single waiter kept close watch over the few tables with customers, jockeying trays of mezes and rakı between the cubby of a kitchen and the vast bahçe.
This is not yet the sort of place where a yacht may pull up and disembark hungry masses, so Kemal doesn’t stock any of the luxurious catches found at some of the fancier fish restaurants around town. He does keep a full pile of hardwood to fuel the grill and is always willing to procure a nice fish from the market if given advance notice. Otherwise, he keeps the offerings quite simple. Our meal began according to custom with a spread of mezes – we were happy to find our favorite combo of melon, white cheese and spicy ezme, along with freshly toasted bread. The ara sıcak course was a generous heap of fried calamari accompanied by a garlicky yogurt sauce.
We preferred to keep the intimacy of the communal plate alive rather than opting out for our own whole fish. We ordered a few plates of tekir, a smaller red mullet, along with çinekop, a small bluefish. When the fish was done, grapes and fruit appeared in the middle of the table, compliments of Kemal. Aside from a few nice details such as fresh toasted bread and a luscious melon, we left Kemal’s with few notes about the food but a lasting impression that we’d spent the evening in a magical corner of the city that exists contrary to all logic, rules and regulations – a leafy, quiet, waterfront fish restaurant with very affordable prices that no one makes a fuss about. Which, for us, is something to make a fuss about.
Address: Makaracılar Caddesi 3, Karaköy
Telephone: 538-451-4417 (Kemal’s mobile)
(photo by Ansel Mullins)