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Istanbul’s Impresario of Seafood

To her amazement, Paula Wolfert discovers revelatory seafood in a restaurant surrounded by tour buses.

I admit I was skeptical when my friend, the Turkish food writer Ayfer Ünsal, told me that we’d be dining at a restaurant across from the Istanbul airport. I actually groaned when I saw the tour buses parked in front of an imposing cluster of sleek, modern buildings.

Ayfer only smiled mischievously. "Prepare to be amazed," she said.

I was! The restaurant she’d chosen, Kasibeyaz, turned out to be a revelation, serving exquisitely prepared classic and modern Turkish dishes.

Kasibeyaz means "white eyebrow"—a strange name for a restaurant, I thought, until I met the restaurateur, Ahmet Kasibeyaz, and saw the streak of white hair across one of his eyebrows. This striking family trait accounted for both his and his restaurant’s unusual name.

Thin, tall and intensely charismatic, Ahmet has worked in the restaurant business for most of his 64 years. Like Ayfer, he comes from Gaziantep, a city in southeastern Turkey that’s famous for its food. As a boy, Ahmet was an apprentice to the famous Gaziantep baklava maker, Güllüoglu. Later he opened a restaurant in the Black Sea town of Samsun, then moved on to Istanbul.

All of Ahmet’s restaurants have benefited from his keen instinct for publicity. When he launched his restaurant in Samsun, Ahmet mailed fliers to everyone in the phone book, announcing that he would be calling numbers at random, and that anyone who answered with the word Kasibeyaz would receive a free baklava. Soon everyone in town was answering the phone with his name, and Ahmet’s career was launched.

Kasibeyaz is actually three restaurants in a modern complex in the upscale neighborhood of Florya. One specializes in southeastern Turkish dishes such as siveydiz, a juicy lamb stew traditionally served in the springtime with green garlic and leeks, slathered with yogurt and drizzled with sizzling black-pepper-and-mint-scented butter. It also offers another regional specialty, alinazik, a creamy puree of roasted eggplant covered with diced lamb. The second restaurant serves traditional Italian food, and the third focuses on fish.

Coastal Turkey, surrounded by the Black, Marmaran and Aegean seas, is a true fish-eater’s paradise. Every morning, Ahmet sends two fish specialists to Kumkapi, the biggest fish hall in town (which is, conveniently, very near his restaurant). The two men lurk there from 2 a.m. to 8 a.m., pouncing on the best seafood as it comes up for auction.

At the restaurant, Ayfer and I chose our fish from a display case filled with line-caught bluefish, turbot, sea bass, mackerel, fresh anchovies, red mullets and swordfish. We conferred with the cooks about whether to have our selections grilled over wood, fried in oil or poached in broth. Then we returned to our table to savor some of the best mezes in Istanbul while awaiting our selections.

My choice was a thick white fish poached in a rich, aromatic liquor of grated tomatoes, garlic, hot pepper and cream, with fresh oregano and freshly ground pepper—a superb rendering of the Istanbul and Black Sea style of cooking known as bugulama, or slow cooking in liquid. Moist, succulent and with an extraordinarily bright tomato flavor, it was one of the finest seafood preparations I’ve ever tasted. Accompanied only by freshly baked flat bread, the dish was a meal in itself.

Ahmet is famous for his breads, which are made from scratch on the premises and rushed to the tables from the wood-fired ovens by a specially trained staff of bread runners. His mixture of hard wheat flours yields a satisfying, earthy flavor, while the heat from his bread ovens gives this flat bread a nice, chewy texture.

My version of the Turkish flat bread is cooked in a normal home oven on a baking stone. Even though the dough takes a couple of days to prepare, the swordfish takes only 30 minutes or so to braise in the oven, so I recommend that you serve the two together, using the freshly baked bread to sop up the light and delicious tomato-flavored sauce.

Published May 2007
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