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cafe silan (kurdish/turkish): report (Long)

foodfirst | Feb 5, 200212:51 PM

This place was reviewed pretty favorably by the Chron a few months ago. The food is Kurdish but would be quite recognizable to anyone who's travelled in any part of Turkey, not just the east. I was hopeful, as I've been pretty disappointed by most "Turkish" eateries in the Bay Area.
A friend and I started with two appetizers ... the pureed red lentil balls (or logs) and the green beans. Turkish/Kurdish vegetable mezze (appetizers)such as eggplant (patlican) and green beans (fasulye) should be heavy on the olive oil and garlic ... the beans at Silan lacked both flavors and had a peculiarly mushy (as opposed to soft and well-cooked but retaining a bit of a bite) texture almost like canned green beans. The lentil balls were alright, not completely pureed so there was some nice beany texture, but again they needed a flavor punch. They would also have been better served room temperature. Lemon squeezed on top helped some. We spread them on the pide (bread) that came with the meal which was, again, just OK.

For main courses we split the lamb and eggplant cooked in clay pot (guvec in Turkish) and the lamb on bread cubes with tomato sauce. The former consisted of chunks of lamb, eggplant, green pepper and onion in a tomatoey sauce. It could have been more garlicky and the sauce-to-chunk ratio was off (too much sauce). While both the chunks (too small, IMO) and the sauce were tasty enough, the flavors weren't completely melded as they would have been if all ingredients had been placed in the clay pot and baked together for hours. I suspect the sauce was prepared separately and mixed in rather than being the natural result of slow cooking. All in all this could not begin to compare with the little bubbling cauldrons of meaty/eggplanty deliciousness found in truckstops all over Turkey (which are cooked in the same wood-fired ovens in which breads are baked). The best part of this dish was the plate of bulgur pilav and yogurt (separate, not mixed) served on the side. The pilav was mildly spicy with a bit of red pepper, both soft and crunchy at the same time (al dente, I guess), and the yogurt was sour and rich, definately full-fat. A bite of the two together was heavenly.

The lamb/bread dish was the best of our meal. Turkey travellers will recognize it as Iskender or Bursa kebap -- strips of fresh pide topped with a rich tomato sauce, strips shaved grilled lamb and yogurt, and drizzled with browned butter. The difference at Silan is that the bread is not fresh but toasted, and it's not in strips but in small cubes. This dish was incredibly rich (as it should be) and redolent with garlic. The tomato sauce (puree-ish, not chunky) was snappy (perhaps the same sauce they use in the claypot, but it was perfect here) and the yogurt was smooth and creamy. The lamb (more in pieces than strips), was tasty, although it did seem to have been cooked earlier rather than shaved off a spit right before serving. The brown butter drizzled on top pulled this heart-attack-on-a-plate together. My only complaint would be that it should have been sprinkled with biber (chili pepper). Silan will provide biber on the side if you ask, but it's the sort of crushed chili you get in pizza places rather than the oiled and roasted crushed chili you find in the Middle East (which has a distinct flavor other than "hot") and which I know is available in the US.

We were much too full for dessert but the waiter brought us a complimentary komposto (compote) of dried apricots, raisins, and a couple other unidentifiable fruits floating in a deliciously spiced (cardamom?) sweetened juice. Served very cold in a glass with straws and long spoons, it was refreshing and just right after the rich meal.

The Chron review recommended yogurt and savory meat dishes and from this experience I'd have to agree. The lamb/bread dish was promising enough (and I'm desperate enough for Turkish food) that I'll go back, to try the bulgur balls in yogurt sauce and more lamb entrees, and skip appetizers. The friendly staff is Kurdish (don't know about the chef) and willing to suffer my bad Turkish so further investigation is in order I think.
That said, Cafe Silan is not cheap at $40 for 2 appetizers, 2 entrees, and 2 teas (we were stuffed when we left though, and I am a big eater). There is wine and beer. The restaurant's decor is attractive, a good place for a quiet evening meal, Turkish music playing on the stereo.

And allow me to include a final rant: where oh where is that enterprising Bay Area restaurateur who might do for Turkish food what Kokkari did for Greek food? It's so much more than stuffed grape leaves and kebaps!

Cafe Silan
Santa Cruz Avenue across from Flegel's furniture store
Menlo Park
Lunch and dinner daily

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