In the space which was once Belmondo (which gradually evolved from a Gallic steak frites joint, to a late night bar, to a failing business), we now find a Turkish tavern. Rather than serving the predictable kebab menu (although kebabs are present), Gaia sets out to replicate the typical Turkish bar where men (and yes, it's usually men) spend the evening nibbling mezzes and drinking raki. Since this is New York, Gaia looks a bit smarter than the bars I remember in Istanbul. It has been painted a rich cosy red, and it's softly, soothingly lit.
Raki is available, but I settled for red wine, and ended up drinking an undistinguished but perfectly smooth and accepable Turkish red chosen by our server. He was very insistent that we co-operate with Gaia's mode of operation, which is that you wait to see a huge tray containing little plates of mezzes, then grab the ones you want. This creates a hiatus at the beginning of the meal, as the tray makes its laborious way from table to table, but he clearly didn't want us just to order from the menu. Think of this as dim sum-style service, but with only one, slow-moving trolley. The mezzes are six dollars each, and we grabbed quite randomly. Maybe we grabbed wrong, because the flavors we found were harsh and discordant. Taramasalata was very salty; sardine fillets rolled around stuffed olives were very vinegary, as were the sour chunks of cold mackerel; stuffed squid was blander and too dry. We only really liked the smooth chickpea balls stuffed with pine nuts and raisins, and the bread which was hot and spongy.
We shared a special of the day, somewhere between a mezze and an entree in size and price: stewed tripe, the famed iskembe of Turkish cuisine. It was appropriately tender, some cheese had been melted into the rich brown gravy, and warmth was provided by red chili pods. Quite nice.
We then shared (and the entrees are huge) a plate of kofte kebabs, with a little patty of eggplant and a nest of fried potato and onion strands. Pretty good, but not unlike entrees on offer at established Turkish restaurants in the city. We spent $40 a head, drinking inexpensive wine by the glass. I can see why this place is a good idea, and it will surely attract a late night drinking crowd. They just need to fine tune the part of the menu which is intended to be distinctive.
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