We always feel a bit like a cheating spouse when we walk past our longtime favorite – albeit dry – fish spot, Arnavutköy’s Adem Baba , towards Hayri Balık, a lovely little fish shack up the street. But sometimes, well after the brunching hour, we like to have something a little stronger than a Fanta with our fish. Any sense of guilt is quickly numbed, though, as we drain a cold beer in the afternoon sun while sitting outside Hayri’s humble dining room.
If Adem Baba commands a battery of grillers in its three locations, Hayri Balık is more of a one-man show, the leaky rowboat of fish restaurants. On a recent visit, the dining room went dark every few minutes, raising the blood pressure of Hayri, who stomped over from the kitchen to the switch, located right next to the light for the bathroom, to flip the lights back on. Indeed, without him there could not even be light at Hayri Balık.
Speaking with Hayri, we felt certain he wouldn’t serve anything that he wouldn’t gladly sit down and enjoy himself. And you won’t catch Hayri calling anyone “efendi” or clearing the plates too quickly. If anything, it seems he’s about to sit down and eat with you.
So in Hayri’s hands, we felt comfortable digging into the forbidden fruit of the Bosphorus straits, midye dolma, or stuffed mussels. Back in Beyoğlu’s side streets, huge plates of mussels stacked three deep are ferried around on the heads of young boys. Late at night, men crowd around these boys, squeezing lemon on the half shells and shooting the contents back with liquid courage and machismo pushing them along. As tempting as this snack on the go may look, we’ve seen the grim shucking rooms in Tarlabaşı basements; there is probably a good reason that the mussel boys flee the scene when a cop turns the corner.
We are careful where we eat our stuffed mussels, but when given the green light, we can really indulge. At Hayri, the medley of rice, currants and pine nuts was informed by the fragrance of the sea, almost within view, and cinnamon. It was an intoxicating bite that wasn’t lost on a cat that prowled our way as the pile of spent shells accumulated at the center of the table.
With another drink we inquired about the fish. Bluefish? Grouper? Sole?
Hayri cut us short with a smile and suggested we have the istavrit, or horse mackerel. He told us he’d just picked them up from a local boat and, indeed, they looked great. So we ate the istavrit fried, with a fresh little salad with shaved carrots and cabbage on the side. The sweet flesh of the fish flaked from the bone, easily leaving something to toss to the cat. Hayri does have more fish on offer most days but he’ll tell you what to order regardless of what the menu says.
A fling with Hayri cannot challenge our devotion to Adem Baba and the two remain incomparable in our minds. But every so often, when we are feeling frisky, we’ll shamelessly sneak over for a bit of the Hayri experience.
Address: Satış Meydanı 7, Arnavutköy
(photo by Ansel Mullins)