Even for the adventurous I wouldn’t recommend going to Grifin on your own. This area of Istanbul is what New York’s meat packing district must have been like before it became fashionable. Dark, narrow streets twist like a labyrinth passing warehouses and an ancient Roman market place. While none of the streets seem to be marked as one-way, most are so narrow as to leave no other option. Had the concierge at the hotel not written down the address and then given explicit directions to the driver, I would have been nervous that we were headed someplace sinister rather than to Istanbul’s most famed and oldest continuously operating fish house.
Once inside the upper floor where the restaurant sits, the atmosphere changes dramatically. Clean white tablecloths, white tiled floor, and simple elegant décor that does not try to detract from the unparalleled views of the Istanbul’s Asian side and the famed sites of the Golden Horn. This is also the first time I recognized the genius of Hakan Ozkaraman, the owner of Grifin. This once ball-bearing salesman who taught himself to cook in his mother’s kitchen saw the potential of this lost neighborhood, which easily commands one of the best views in the city. Situated on the European side of the city at the base of Beyoglu Hill, steps from the waters of the Bosphorus that divide the east from west, diners are afforded amazing views of the Blue Masque, Topkapi Place, and the Haghia Sophia that are lit at night and seem to float over the old city.
Ozkaraman comes from a noble family of Ottoman descent and is a commanding presence in his own right. But, much of the time he is watching me with the expectant look of a child waiting for my eyes to light up as I try dish after exotic dish that he has created. Everything here is something he invented or an exotic twist on a food that has come from his family kitchen.
“I just like experimenting with the things I like. Eating here would be like eating at my home,” Ozkaraman says. Perhaps he is telling the truth, but it is hard to imagine anything as complicated and masterful coming from just any kitchen.
Take for example the Lakarda. One of the most delicate yet rich raw fish dishes I have ever had. To prepare this old Ottoman recipe requires a unique kind of fresh fish from the local waters, boned, packed in salt, turned and drained every other day for two months before it can be served with fresh lemon juice and a small bite of red onion. This is better than any sushi I have ever had anywhere. And, this is not the only homemade delicacy to come from his kitchen. His bread is baked daily in a wood-fired oven giving it a smoky flavor perfect for dipping into his homemade hand-pressed olive oil. His fish soup flavored with over 15 herbs and spices he gets from the famed Spice Market left me wanting more. To accompany the meal he has only two wine choices, both from grapes from his family’s vineyard which compliment the seafood perfectly.
The original Grifin opened in 1923 and was owned my Ozkaraman’s neighbors when he was growing up. He purchased the restaurant 21 years ago and he has turned it into one of Istanbul’s most stylish and talked about restaurants. If you are in Istanbul this is one culinary experience you won’t want to miss. Don’t be shocked however if you never see a menu. Ozkaraman hates showing it. Personally, I encourage you to leave the menu for the unadventurous and just have brought to your table whatever is fresh that day. A meal of three to four mesa’s, Turkish appetizers, a main course, dessert and wine will run about $100 U.S. per person. Grifin has only 22 tables so make a reservation and make sure you have the address written down and a really good taxi driver.
Dan Dawson is a travel journalist and dedicated world traveler who has written articles for many publications on adventures abroad. He is also the marketing manager for the Big Blue Bus. Tell him about your favorite vacation spot at www.WonderlustTravel.com