In the past four years, the East Bay has seen the arrival of restaurants serving Bulgarian, Uzbek, Fijian-Indian, and Chinese-Muslim food. Ladies and gentlemen, I now present another little-known cuisine: Anatolian.
Actually, it's Turkish. Anatolia is the peninsula that makes up the Asian portion of Turkey. Also known as Asia Minor, it's separated from the European portion by the Bosphorus Strait.
Bosphorus the Anatolian restaurant opened almost two months ago at University Avenue and Ninth Street, in the storefront space last known as Ahlishan. The late Punjabi restaurant got crowded out by the flurry of new Indian eateries opening up on the University strip. Open up an Indian restaurant in a row of Indian restaurants, and few people will notice. Open up a Turkish restaurant in a row of Indian restaurants -- in a city whose last Turkish restaurant closed a year ago, no less -- and foodies will get curious. Open up a Turkish restaurant with an $8.90 all-you-can-eat dinner buffet, and you'll have folks shoving each other out of the way to get their hands on the dolma and kebabs.
Three-fourths of the dinnertime customers I observed at Bosphorus made for the buffet, though no one seemed to be throwing punches over the last piece of baklava. The waiters were surprised, and a little thrilled, when my friends and I ordered off the menu. Nothing against the restaurant's buffet -- the diners looked content -- but the year I spent eating in my college cafeteria almost sent me into therapy, and I still grow a little faint at the sight of a steam table. We big à la carte spenders dropped a whopping $20 a person for a shocking amount of food and drink, and didn't regret a dime.
At lunch, diners can choose from a list of inexpensive sandwiches (shish kebabs, koftes, and cheese steaks) and the buffet. Dinner brings the option of doing the old appetizer-entrée-dessert thing or ordering up a spread of meze, the Turkish cognate of tapas. In fact, most of the creativity and flair of Turkish cuisine comes out in the small plates, but some of Bosphorus' entrées are equally delicious.
There are three species of meze: spreads, little bites, and salads. If a lot of the foods seem familiar to you -- you've had them at Greek restaurants, you've had them at Lebanese restaurants -- think Ottoman Empire, which was, of course, the Turks. If they didn't invent baba ghanouj, they sure as hell shared the recipe with a lot of people.
But familiarity does not always breed contempt. The cooks, led by Davut Kurt (from northern Anatolia), imbue all of the dishes with vivid, fresh flavors.
The spreads come with a basket of soft, dimpled house-baked Anatolian flatbread sprinkled with sesame seeds. As fluffy as whipped cream or mayonnaise, coral-pink taramasalata was bright with lemon that held the pungent sea flavor of the cod eggs in check. The patlican ezme could have used an extra dose of lemon or garlic, but a whiff of smoke gave the mayonnaise-enriched eggplant puree some depth. Ispanak borani blended earthy spinach and tart yogurt, with enough garlic and mint to give it great depth of flavor. And cucumber-and-dill-speckled cacik was a fine version of what the Greeks call tzatziki; we slathered it over just about everything we could.
All the other little plates were as finely wrought. I'm still not sure what they dressed the Yunan (Greek) salad with, because it wasn't swimming in vinaigrette. Somehow, though, the cooks infused the sliced tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions with a snappy acidity. Sigara boregi, thin, crunchy phyllo "cigars" stuffed with feta and herbs, disappeared quickly. Pastirma, described as pastrami on the menu, barely resembled Saul's. It actually came closer to an air-dried, cured meat crusted in herbs and spices that the Armenians call basturma and the Bulgarians, file. The Anatolian version, lean and succulent, was much better than other versions I've tried.
I tasted a couple of entrées that didn't fare as well. Had it spent less time on the fire, the grilled salmon, its black-edged crust doused with lemon juice, would have been great. Türlü isn't Turkey's top heavy metal band, it's a vegetable ragout. The waiter didn't seem to be enthusiastic about selling it to us, and when the Türlü arrived we understood why: It was a pleasant but mushy ratatouille with a few extra veggies beyond the standard peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, and onions.
But god, the kebabs -- everything grilled just right and simply, perfectly seasoned. On paper everything looks like chunks of grilled meat, but in the flesh (so to speak) the many variations are quite distinct. The cubes of grilled beef (dana sis) had a sweet pink core and a crusty, fire-licked exterior. Saffron-hued chicken breast (tavuk sis) stayed moist from center to edge, and didn't suffer from the insipidity that you often find with white meat. Kasarli köfte, savory little lamb-and-beef meatballs, squirted melted cheese when you cut into them. The long, chile-flecked sausages of ground beef and lamb called andana kebabs had been molded along the length of a skewer. Despite their shape they stayed pink and moist in the center.
All of the meats came with either a latte-colored pilaf of rice with chopped herbs, toasted pine nuts, and currants, or a mound of chewy white rice pilaf threaded with toasted noodles.
When I visited, the restaurant had been so busy that they had run out of Efes, Turkish beer, and most of the Turkish sodas on the menu. Instead, one of my friends ordered a glass of freshly squeezed peach juice, thick and sweet, and another a can of Uludag Gazoz, which tasted like a mixture of Sprite and red cream soda. I settled on a glass of fruity Turkish red wine, much like a budget Australian shiraz and a good match for the kebabs.
My friends and I ended our meal with tiny cups of sweet, grainy Turkish coffee that kept us up past midnight arguing over the recall (run, Gary, run!). Or maybe it was the sugar in the syrup oozing from walnut-filled cylinders of phyllo dough (baklava in name if not in shape) and the rice pudding, a creamy spice-dusted custard thickened with pureed rice.
Bosphorus is a family affair: Kurt works with his wife, his son, a couple of cousins, and a few friends. They're still polishing up the service. On my first visit we had to prompt our waiter a couple of times for drinks and dessert, and the woman who delivered our food had a generous smile but didn't yet speak enough English to respond to our requests. But the service was significantly smoother on my second visit.
The restaurant opened on the proverbial shoestring, taking over the space that the short-lived Ahlishan had spent a lot of money remodeling. The buffet setup wasn't the only thing the new restaurant kept in place. Turkish rugs on the walls have replaced paintings of the gods, but the butter-yellow paint job and the distinctly Indian elephant-head central column and filigree woodwork remain. Thankfully, the Kurts didn't touch the semiprivate candlelit booths in back, perfect for doe-eyed looks and a little discreet canoodling.
It's always a treat to discover a new cuisine. Curiosity may bring you to Bosphorus. The food will probably bring you back.
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