Recently, Ive been tracking the Renaissance of new Turkish restaurants and offer some initial impressions.
Open for about five months, CAFÉ DE PERA has taken over Kasras former space on 5th and Clement. The sunny yellow walls and the wide windows create an open and light feeling in this corner space that invites you to linger. The original oils on display are by the neighborhood artist who is making progress on a mural on the exterior wall along 5th. The blues seem to be the tunes of choice on the airwaves. Orders are placed at the cashier and then brought to your table.
My first visit, not seeing the option on the menu, I asked whether it was possible to get a sampler of the cold dishes/salads. Filtered through the slight language barrier, the response to my question came back as an offer of a free bowl of Ezme ($3.50, mashed tomato blend with onion, green and red bell pepper paste, spicy sauce and olive oil) served with whole wheat toast. I liked this better than A La Turcas, as it was more carefully minced very fine and spicier as well. The vegetables seemed fresher with more snap and the chopped walnuts were toasted and still crunchy. It had more zip and verve plus a pleasant ketchup-y back note.
As I waited for my Spinach Pie ($5.50, fresh dough stuffed with spinach, mushrooms, cheddar cheese and onion), the owner checked back to say that it would take a little while more as it was made to order. I told him that was fine, preferable in fact, and how much I liked the zesty flavors of the ezme. He swelled with pride and said that his chef had come from a well-known Turkish restaurant in New Jersey and made everything from scratch each day.
The spinach pie was an elongated crescent with a pinched top seam. It was cut into four sections. The filling had more mushrooms than spinach bound with a bit of cheese and seasoned with onions. Use of fresh champignons and silky whole spinach leaves made the inside a bit wet and in need of more salt. Once that was remedied, it was fine. The side of Greek salad had a zingy oregano and rosemary-spiked dressing with crispy romaine, slivers of sweet red onion, nice tomatoes, and a little bit of feta. The canned black olives had a musty taste and should be avoided. A nice lunch plate for the price.
To drink, first, I had a Jarritos Piña (pineapple). The owner said the Mexican sodas had been popular. Then I ended with a Turkish coffee (made with Caffe Costadoro). The counter man asked me if I preferred it sweetened or wanted to add my own sugar. I had him prepare it with sugar, which seems to make the coffee smoother and stay hotter than adding sugar at the table, and was happy with the result.
My second time, I ordered the Adana Kebab platter ($8.50, skewered minced beef flavored with spices). The meat was coarsely ground, cooked medium-well, and crusty from grilling around the edges. The seasonings were subtler and less piquant than the versions at Gyro King or Anatolian Gyro. Visible bits of sweet red pepper, onion, parsley, and coarse ground pepper studded the forcemeat. Accompaniments were a tasty mold of ruddy-colored tomato rice, some red cabbage slaw, fresh grated carrots and red onion slices, and Greek salad. A puffy half round of a Kurdish-style roll had a dense chewy crumb and a glazed top sprinkled with black and white sesame seeds. I enjoyed the fresh and direct flavors of careful preparation of good ingredients, but craved more spice in the kebab.
There were more pastries in the case since my first visit, a month earlier. What caught my attention was a tray of mini-baklava. Just a little more than an inch wide at the base, triangles of walnut-filled filo were baked with point up and drizzled with honey glaze. Four or so pieces of these make up an order. They were a little soggy and not crackly fresh. As it turned out, this wasnt a loss. When I went to pay my bill, the counter man said dessert was on the house because I was a return customer. ;-)
Café de Pera
349 Clement St.
M-F, 7am for coffee and pastries, kitchen open 11am-11pm
S-S, 9am for brunch through 2am for dinner
A recent appointment in the Civic Center was my chance to try GYRO KING finally. My Adana Kebab Sandwich, $6.25, was first served to me wrapped in lavosh instead of the pide flat rounds. The cook said he was happy to change it for me. As he re-assembled my sandwich, I told him that the same bread is found in western China and wondered whether it came from the Turks. He said that this style of bread was from Kurdistan, also that the food at his restaurant was made in the style of eastern Turkey with more spice.
The sandwich was really good made with the homemade bread. The mixed ground beef and lamb kebab was moist and juicy inside with some assertive spicing and garnished with dead ripe tomatoes, slivers of sweet red onion, green leaf lettuce, and yogurt sauce.
As I ate my lunch, I enjoyed watching the cook pull his hand-shaped baked goods out of the oven and place them on the display counter. Calzone-like stuffed pies, lahmacun, and borek are his art. He would stop a moment to admire his handy work with the broad smile of satisfaction on his face. Its just nice to see someone who takes so much pride in his work.
Prepared vegetable appetizers and salads, manti, a couple daily specials on the steam table, grilled meats, and a full line up of filo-based pastry complete the menu. Meats are certified halal.
25 Grove St.
7 days a week
7:3am to 10pm
Open for 11 months, the owner/operators of this small storefront, ANATOLIA GYRO, are cousins of the Gyro King family. They are also from eastern Turkey, via Istanbul. The menu is nearly identical in layout and offerings. Manti is not listed, but the son told me that its available nearly every day and that I should come back to try it. This is a fast food set up with just a handful of small tables.
I had an Adana Kebab Sandwich, $6.25, made here with all lamb (certified halal). The meat had been formed into a thicker cylinder, then split lengthwise and placed on each sliced half of the sandwich. The homemade bread used here was not the golden brown egg-washed small rounds such as Gyro Kings or A La Turcas, but more like the flat bread made by Iraqi baker, Rihabs. Wider and thinner with an uneven chewy crumb full of irregular voids, the bread had a crunchy and blistered crust. In combination with the white sauce, tomatoes, cucumbers, and slivered onions, it was a delicious and quick meal. The only customer in the place at the time, out of the corner of my eye, I could see all three watching for my reaction. There were sighs of relief and wide smiles all round when I said I liked it.
Dessert was Sutlac, $2.50, rice pudding baked in a ceramic casserole dish. This has got to be one of the best bites for the price. Served cold out of the icebox, the medium-sweet milky custard base was very creamy and the round pearly rice was softened and tender but still had some integrity.
Another time I tried the Gyro Pie, $3.25, a borek stuffed with chopped lamb and beef gyros and chopped green and red bell pepper and tomatoes. The dough was fold artistically in an oval shape leaving a stripe of filling through the middle. The dough was a bit lighter and flakier than Café de Peras. The gyros bits had wonderful flavor but were toughened and dried out. Still, its a terrific snack.
Ive also tried the Revani, $2.25, which is a square bar of semolina cake. Dense, heavy and moderately sweet, a little bit goes a long way as an afternoon pick-me-up.
2731 Taylor St.
7 days a week
10am to 10pm