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Deep in the Heart of Persia



Turquoise Turkish Grill's new location is authentically delicious

Sensing a deeply felt but seldom-expressed need for such information, I’m going to present a few random facts about Turkish cuisine: Sour cherry is a popular fruit in Turkey, and the juice is often added to vodka. (Or vice-versa.) Feta, though used, is not as ubiquitous as it is in Greece; it is not scattered with
Turquoise Turkish Grill
3720 NW Loop 410
11am-2:30pm & 5-10pm Tue-Fri; 11am-10pm Sat-Sun
Price range: $7.95-24.95
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abandon over salads, for example. Sumac, the deep-red and seriously sour powder that is a staple of Persian cooking, is used primarily as a counter to the bite of raw onion. Though not so much the case today, as recently as 15 years ago, regional differences in Turkish cuisine were quite pronounced, and even the kebab common to the entire Eastern Mediterranean varied substantially on the trip from the Syrian border to the Bosporus.

And here we come to the meat of the matter: Turquoise Turkish Grill (which recently moved from its start-up location on Perrin-Beitel) is “99 percent authentic,” according to its affable owner, Kemal Cenkci, and it is also entirely ecumenical. We’re not sure about Ankara or Izmir (there is no seafood), but Adana and Istanbul get almost equal billing in the skewered-meat department. There is a chunky Adana kebab of char-grilled beef and lamb, and there’s Istanbul’s Iskender iteration, sliced from marinated beef and lamb stacked on a vertical rotisserie and named for Alexander (Iskender) the Great. Great it is, too.

In a simpler version, the sliced meats, called doner, are straightforwardly served atop rice; Iskender merits a more princely presentation in a buttery tomato sauce with cubes of puffy pita, pieces of grilled tomato and bell pepper, and a huge dollop of yogurt. You’ll want to incorporate the tangy yogurt to balance the butter — and you’ll want to keep on eating to the anything-but-bitter end. There are shops in Istanbul that sell only Iskender, according to Cenkci, and now we know why.

The puffy pita brings us back to the appetizers — or the ante-appetizer, for that matter. Looking more like a sesame-seed-sprinkled focaccia than the pocket bread we’re familiar with, pitas come — pocketless but proud — to your table with a bowl of adulterated olive oil for dipping. We think they need salt — and then to be taken far away so as to thwart the temptation to eat only bread. This would be a shame, since a small meze platter — paired with an earthy, red lentil soup hinting at mint and sundry spices — made for a more than satisfactory lunch one day. Consist-ing of samples ranging from a spicy, salsa-like vegetable spread to several eggplant dishes, an irresistible stiff yogurt preparation with walnuts, a tart bulgur salad and tiny, impeccable dolmas with raisins and pine nuts, each taste was better than the last. Hot appetizers include one of the few feta offerings, a rolled and deep-fried, cheese-stuffed “cigar.” The shepherd’s salad of chopped tomato, cucumber, red onion, and green peppers with oil and lemon needs only riper tomatoes (but not feta, remember) to sparkle.

Turquoise’s previous location was in the shell of a former Italian restaurant, and the ghost of the place still lingered in both the décor and some of the dishes. Here, sofa- (or maybe La-Z-Boy-) sized paintings that seem to have nothing to do with Turkey are the dominant decorative element, but the colorfully painted walls — a great improvement from the previous Turkish restaurant in this location — stake out new territory. (Tur-quoise’s grocery store, source of sour cherry and more, made the move, too.) And yet, in addition to still-remaining Italian pastas, there was this one Turkish spaghetti dish …

Maybe we should thank Marco Polo, for according to Cenkci, Pasta a la Turca is classic home cooking — with one local exception: garlic. Turquoise’s host is leery of sending Americans out into the street stinky, so he modifies his short-cut spaghetti tossed with seasoned ground beef and tomato sauce and served with yogurt and a sprinkling of dried mint. We say “Stand up for your right to reek!” as garlic is just what this otherwise only-pleasant dish needed. Interestingly enough, however, there was sliced garlic aplenty in the ancient and exotic Imam Bayildi. You gotta love a dish named for a swooning cleric.

Eggplant is a mainstay of Turkish cuisine; it’s grilled, baked, puréed, and even wrapped around the lamb shank a la Turca. Baby (or at least adolescent) eggplant is the base of the bayildi, and it’s the occasion of Ottoman opulence with very simple means: olive oil, tomato, green pepper, onion … and lots of sliced garlic. Served room-temperature, it’s utterly lush, with flashes of acidic tomato contrasting beautifully with the creamy eggplant and earthy onion and garlic. Feel free to faint.

We’re less likely to lose consciousness over the lamb tava, a dish named for the casserole container it’s cooked in, but we liked it well enough regardless. The tava, which also comes in chicken form, is basically a hearty lamb stew with the usual vegetable suspects (except eggplant), and though it lacks the prurient appeal of dishes with names such as ladies’ navels, ladies’ thighs, ladies’ fingers, and sweet lips (none of which are on the menu, alas), it’s altogether satisfying. If, however, your dessert of kaysi tatlisi — rehydrated apricots stuffed with whipped cream, almonds, and pistachios — should come with over-the-hill walnuts instead, send it back. Nothing kills culinary passion like rancid nuts.

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