Coming back from semester holiday, work hit full force. The big art/drama tournament took place just 3 weeks after school started back up and with that over, it’s been an interesting several weeks to say the least. Spring usually brings me clarity and a renewed energy…which this year has me thinking of some big changes in the future…as well as mulling over what’s been going on here in Turkey. Whatever is ahead, for now life goes on as usual and regardless of the day-to-day grind, something I can always count on to fuel my soul is FOOD!
So today I am sharing a place that is more of a ‘special occasion’ type place- a place that welcomes you and lifts you up and into a different realm momentarily, and is really all about the ambiance. Right smack in the hubbub of the crazy and always loud Kadıköy Fish Market, is my favorite place for ‘rakı-balık’, Kadı Nimet Balıkçılık. It’s a bit more upscale in terms of price and decor, but that’s also why I really love it- sometimes you just need to ‘treat yo self’-if not even for a special occasion but just for YOU.
Eating ‘rakı-balık‘ is not just dinner… it’s an entire cultural experience consisting of two major factors: rakı (liquorice flavored powerfully strong alcohol) and fish (balık). When you go for ‘rakı-balık’ or if you go to eat at a ‘meyhane’ you are not going to just sit for a quick bite to eat. Oh no no no. You will most likely instead spend probably 2 hours (and that’s the short version) or potentially all night eating slowly, ordering course after course, drinking, talking, eating, drinking and talking. Eating for hours while socializing all evening… what’s not to love about this? This kind of ‘hours on end’ meal centering around light but filling meze and fish is very typical of meyhane restaurant culture. These are traditional restaurants dating back to the Byzantine Empire that started popping up mostly in seaside areas where tradesmen and merchants would come in to port and have a meal and wine. This tradition continued into the Ottoman Empire and somewhere during that time(it’s unclear exactly when), rakı replaced wine as the traditional alcohol served, according to lore.
The experience starts with first ordering meze– these are kind of like appetizers in that they come before the main course. They are typically small little plates served either cold or hot. They usually feature vegetables in olive oil with yogurt and topped with lots of fresh lemon juice. A few of my favorite are sea beans(super salty and with lots of chopped fresh garlic on top), haydari(thick yogurt with mint and dill), and patlıcan salatası(smoked eggplant drizzled with lemon and mixed with roasted peppers, tomato and parsley). After meze you go on to order the mini-main course. This is usually calamari or a similar small fried fish like hamsi or istavrit (small sardine-like fish from the Black Sea region). Here you can also order midye dolma which are actually traditional to Istanbul itself and are mussels steamed and mixed with spiced rice and currants, then put back in their shells. After the mini-main course, it’s time to order the full main course, which is THE FISH. When I say fish, I mean a whole fish with head and tail attached, waiting for you to pick out all its bones!
If it sounds like a lot of food and a lot of courses, well…it is…but the intention is that you share everything with the people at your table, keeping in with the social theme to this kind of meal. All food is placed in the center and everyone serves themselves. The whole time the eating is taking place, rakı is being poured! Rakı is made from distilled grapes and flavored with anise seeds (hence the liquorice flavor). Of course, drinking rakı has its own ritual. There is a specific order as to how one must pour and serve rakı. You first pour yourself a generous amount, then fill the glass up with water, then last…ALWAYS LAST…add ice. When you add water to rakı it turns a strange milky color, giving it the nickname ‘lions milk’- the drink of strong ‘lion-like men’. Yes…they really do say that. The first time I ever tasted rakı I absolutely despised it. Now, it’s something that I really enjoy paired with the freshness of the meze and fish. The liquorice flavor surprisingly pairs really well with the acidity from the lemon in most dishes and it’s good with fruit and cheese…although speaking honestly, it really can be an acquired taste. Recently a friend of mine came to visit and after one sip of rakı, immediately ordered a different drink…much to the shock of the waiter. It’s also very very potent stuff. You aren’t ever supposed to just drink it, but always order it with some food…the purpose I think is that the food helps you not feel so wobbly when you go to stand up at the end of the night!
For all of that, Kadı Nimet is not your typical meyhane… and I don’t even think it qualifies as an actual meyhane. For one thing, due to its casual off-the-street market location, you don’t need to be dressed up to get a seat. The downstairs rooms have tables out on the street and you can watch the fishermen calling to passersby to buy fresh fish from the restaurant. I have also bought fish from here and taken it home to cook. You just choose a fish and then they take it inside, wash it and clean it at the counter. Here you can sit on the sidewalk with some fried fish and a beer(yes beer is ok, rakı isn’t a must) and relax-not feeling forced to order the full multi-course experience.
However if you want the more upscale feeling and a quieter atmosphere, reserve a table on the rooftop
terrace. Here, the noise of the crowded streets below float into something momentarily forgotten. You know that old Drifter’s Song ‘When this ole world starts getting me down, I climb way up to sit up on the roof…’, I can’t really explain it… but sitting up on the rooftop of Kadı Nimet feels exactly how I’ve always imagined I would feel in that moment of the song. Up there on the roof, if timed right, you can watch the sunset over Kadıköy with a drink in your hand, eating fresh clean food, slowly taking your time to savor it all while chatting with your friends, and then order more, eat more, chat again, and relax.
The prices of Kadı Nimet are reasonable-most fish places serving meze are usually on the pricier side. I recently ate here with several friends to celebrate both a birthday and an engagement-between the 6 of us we each paid 100 lira. This might seem like a lot, but keep in mind we had a huge bottle of rakı as well as other drinks, two table salads, maybe 8 meze, 2 orders of calamari and other various fried fish, and 2 large whole fish… all for the equivalent of $35 including tax and tip. As for the food I really think the meze are the stars…but I could personally just make a meal out of them anytime, any day. The fish is delicious but very simple. It’s not much more than just fish…however the beauty in the simplicity is astounding. It’s freshly caught and clean…it’s not greasy and doesn’t even smell ‘fishy’…just cooked and sprinkled with a bit of salt and served with slices of onion, lemon wedges, and wild arugula (roka).
Of course, it’s a special experience usually reserved for special events… which means you can splurge every now and then…and sometimes that kind of splurge is just really necessary. Sometimes all you need is good atmosphere, simple food, friends, a drink and a place ‘up on the roof’.