I am hit and miss with Asimov's $25 and under column. I don't mean I radically disagree with him. I just don't often find the places he reviews interesting enough to make a visit. But his review of Nazar hit a certain chord and both my wife and I couldn't wait to try it. So last night we got in the car and made the trip all the way from Manhattan to points unkown in Sunnyside.
If you didn't read the review, Nazar is a Turkish restaurant on Queens Blvd. and the corner of 42nd Street. When you walk in, it immediately feels different than any other Turkish restaurant you've been to. No kebab house feeling, and no silly artifacts that are to remind one of Constantinople or the days when Turkey ruled the Mediterranean. I might be wrong but I don't recall a single picture of the Bosphurus!
Nazar is just a clean, simple storefront with a square dining room that holds about 40 people. It gives a "better than Queens appearance" and could pass for a small bistro or cafe in Greenwich Village. A quick glance at the menu and you can tell that this is not just another place where they are slinging Adana Kebabs. And while the menu lists all the traditional Turkish standbys, there are a number of offerings that signal Nazar serves real food too.
We started with four excellent appetizers. Cacik was a breakfast cereal size bowl filled with garlic tinged yogurt, sprinkled with chopped mint and doused with a tablespoon of dark looking, spice-laced olive oil. Hummus came out as a two inch high and six inch round cylinder. It was from the dense school of hummus and it stuck to the spoon. No noticable trace of garlic that you often find in Turkish or Middle Eastern restaurants. We also had a plate of Ezme, a highly spiced chopped salad of ripe tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and large chunks of walnuts to give it some body. The presentation was the same as the hummus. And we topped it all off with an Imam Bayaldi, a small braised eggplant stuffed with tomatoes, onions and pine nuts. If I had one criticism it is that the Ezme was a little too salty, as if it steeped for a bit too long. It needed the coolness of the yogurt or the hummus to cut it.
My wife ordered the Stuffed Chicken Breast for her main course. They took a chicken breast and rolled it around a stuffing of rice and pistachio nuts. It was baked in the oven and served sliced into rounds. It came with a pile of mashed potatoes and a very mild lemony sauce. All I can say about it was that it passed the "you gotta taste this test" which is exactly what she said to me after she took one bite.
I tried to order the Iskender Kabob but they were sold out. While I was trying to sort out what to eat, the waiter convinced me to try the salmon special. I'm always skeptical about something as difficult to prepare as salmon is, especially in a Turkish restaurant in Queens. But he was pretty insistant that is was fantastic so I went with the program. I warned him that I like my salmon rare (so difficult to impress that on waiters) and off he went. Later on he returned with a salmon steak that was pan-sauteed and then formed into a round which was sitting atop a round of mashed potatoes, which itself was sitting atop a round of braised spinach. The entire concoction was sitting in a pool of tomato coulis that was tinged with Turkish spices.
We both cleaned our plates. In fact, every table in the restaurant seemed to have clean plates. The food was really delicious and it was almost on par with something you could get in a place like Anissa in Manhattan. Not quite on that level but certainly worthy of mentioning in the same sentence. And I have to make special mention of their presentation. Each dish was well thought out and interesting without going overboard.
We didn't have one but they have a whole menu of Turkish Pies which are pizza like concoctions with various toppings. A few tables made a pie per person their entire dinner. Another entree that looked good was a Braised Lamb Shank which was wrapped in slices of eggplant.
Desserts were outstanding. I had Quince was stuffed with Pistachio Ice Cream and topped with Pistachio laced Whipped Cream. My wife had the fried dough, which were tiny zeppole type of balls where the inside was drenched in butter and lemon.
Dinner for two before tip was $60. And that included our food, two Iced Teas which was a large glass along with a small pitcher for refills, and two glasses of sour cherry juice. Let's hope that this is the beginning of a trend and more outer borough restaurants aspire to be something other than greasy grill and fry joints.