1414-1418 Comm Ave, Brighton
Open daily, 11 a.m.–11 p.m.
AE, MC, Vi
Beer-and-wine license coming soon
No valet parking
I was surprised by how good the Istanbul Café was in its old semi-subterranean location on Beacon Hill. I was amazed by how much better it is as a fancy restaurant in the former quarters of Atara (and before that, Uva, the ancestor of Troquet). Although Turkish food doesn’t get a lot of credit in a region with larger communities of Armenian- and Greek-Americans, Istanbul Café has some of the best Middle Eastern food I’ve ever tasted here or there. And it now has a street-level setting as nice as ZuZu’s or Argana’s, and approaching that of the Helmand or Oleana.
The management has kept Atara’s canary-yellow walls and cherry-wood tables with black accents, as well as the pewter-crown napkin rings, but added such Turkish semiotics as kilims, a sword, pictures of eminent men in fezzes and turbans, and a satellite TV hook-up that seems to broadcast mostly Turkish news chat. The background music runs toward Turkish rock, which to an outsider sounds sort of like Fleetwood Mac with a lot more tambourines, or perhaps Peter Frampton and Linda Ronstadt sitting in with a really good belly-dancing band.
Food begins with a hot flat-ish roll topped with sesame seeds, served at dinner with a saucer of what looks like salsa, but tastes like hotted-up gazpacho. It would be hard to pass up the appetizer platter ($12), your choice of four half-portions from about eight appetizer options. I took my old favorite, sigara borek ($6 à la carte), fried pastry cigars with a fluffy feta filling. But my new favorite is patlican salata ($6), the universal dish of chopped broiled eggplant, here rendered immortal with distinctive eggplant, charcoal, lemon, and garlic flavors. It was somewhat coarser than a purée, but the kitchen achieves what my old conga teacher Daniel Moncada used to call "good separation" between the different flavors. Zeytin yagli prasa ($5.25) is a bit of Turkish home cooking, a cold dish of braised leeks and carrots. Dolma ($8.50) can be stuffed cabbage, grape leaves, zucchini, or a combination. On the appetizer platter it’s two grape leaves and a beautifully striated pocket of zucchini, stuffed with a savory combination of sweet and sour vegetables that suggests a medieval meat dish, without any actual meat.
We had to repeat the patlican salata to see if it was really that good. It was, and the appetizer solo portion includes about three times as much of it. But you also don’t want to miss the lentil soup ($4.50), a rich, creamy, yellow-green purée without any of the coarse flavor of most lentil dishes.
The menu features a lot of small plates, which could be appetizers or light dinners. We split up, in pretty much random order, three such items. Kalimar ($13.50) is a plate of charcoal-grilled squid rings that may be the answer to fried calamari. The grilling at Istanbul Café adds a strong meaty flavor without toughening the squid, no dip is required, and the underlying salad could put this on any of the low-carb diets. Hamsi ($15) is a unique Black Sea fish that comes with the usual folklore about making you sexy and smart (with any luck, in that order). What you have are fried tiny fish, skinnier than sardines, joined at the tails so you can pick up two or three at the same time, on a mesclun salad with sliced red onions. Our hamsi weren’t as sweet and fresh as the squid, however.
Pidesi ($11.50–$14.50) are described as Turkish pizza, but are actually breads from a richer dough like the breadbasket rolls, partially folded over the fillings to make something like a semi-open calzone. Our "pastirma" ($13.50) featured what I would take as the original of New York pastrami, a leaner, saltier, cured beef that is an excellent foil in a stuffed bread.
Genuine entrées tend to be meatier, with a side cone of pilaf, as well as the onions and salad. Yeprak donner kebab ($14.50) is the ancestor of gyro, but the real thing is made of marinated sliced lamb rather than ground meat, and rotisserie-cooked to a fine crust, which is shaved off for the dish. It is great eating, with or without the accompanying grilled pepper, sliced tomato, red onions, pilaf, and salad. For lamb haters, there is tuvak kebab ($12.50), which is chicken chunks, again wonderfully flavored by the charcoal grill and not overly marinated, with the pilaf, onions, tomato, and salad.
If you want more of a sauced dish, hünker begana ($14.50) has meltingly tender chunks of lamb in a tomato-based sauce that leaves them almost beef-flavored, the whole in a ring of chopped baked eggplant nearly as great as the eggplant salad. Musakka ($14) is the ancestor of the Balkan moussakas, but lacks the béchamel layer, thus being more of a loose stew of ground lamb, onions, eggplant slices, and sauce.
My review beat the beer-and-wine license by about a week. There are many other interesting things to drink, however, including three unusual fruit juices, of which the sour cherry ($1) is refreshing, like a semi-sweetened cranberry juice. The yogurt drink Ayran ($1.50) is also cooling, like a cucumber-yogurt salad without the cucumber. Turkish tea ($1.50) is served hot in a pretty glass with a handle that stays cool. Apple tea ($1.50) is hot sweetened apple juice in the same glass. Turkish coffee ($3.50) is a semi-demitasse of intense stuff, made only a little sweet if you so opt. You sip down to the grounds, then invert the cup for a minute or two to make patterns from which some will read your fortune. (I saw industrial cooling towers, a giant chicken, and a cow — apparently indicative of a future reviewing genetically modified food.)
The desserts are quite sweet, as though matched with this kind of coffee. Our favorite was kunefe ($6.50), a large pancake of shredded wheat stuck together with cheese, cinnamon, and sugar. Kundasi daba with ice cream ($4.50) is a square of pudding so sweet that the ice cream is actually a foil. The "kreme caramel" ($3.50) is a more conventional flan. Irmik helva ($3) is two scoops of loose farina sweetened and served with raisins and bits of apricot.
Service on two visits was excellent and witty from the same young Turkish-American woman, who knows and explains the food well. The menu is also full of personal touches.
Robert Nadeau can be reached at RobtNadeau@aol.com