Not having seen 300, Hollywood's beefcake version of the ancient grievances between Persia and the Greek city-states, I must settle for a more dated image of Turkey's once-great warriors.
On stones unearthed over time by scholars—you know, those sullen experts we've preferred to ignore ever since popular culture turned to hearsay and conjecture for guidance—we see larger-than-life figures like Xerxes and Darius carted around on frilly thrones, their hair curled into foppish ringlets and bodies festooned in bracelets and necklaces. It's difficult to imagine these guys devouring platters of rough grilled meat doused in hearty stock.
But there, on the menu at Shish, is a dish that supposedly harks back to that era: Iskender doner, which they bill as Alexander the Great's favorite.
Lentil soup $3.95
Meze combo (four cold appetizers) $12.95
Iskender doner $12.50
Kuzu sis $12.95
Yes, I know Alexander conquered those dandies. But he was soon swept off his feet by their fancy ceremonies, cool threads and willing eunuchs...or so they say. He became, according to guys like Arrian, a Persian wannabe. Fortunately, as I understand culinary history, this particular recipe is of much more recent heritage, dating only to the next-to-last century—sometime in the 1800s.
Despite this blatant attempt to mangle history and exploit popular ignorance, Shish's kitchen remains true to the original. The not-so-ancient chef Iskender (that's Alexander to the English-speaking world) of Bursa, who first tweaked this common roasted mutton dish, intended something savory and very, very filling. So it is here, the slippery mouth feel telling of meat basted in its own fat as it twirls against a grill. Spread over hunks of soft flatbread known as pide, lamb shards bask in a broth of tomato and butter. Piled to the side, a mound of tart yogurt picks up a little on the sauce's tartness, though mostly adding heft. But for the tomato-butter concoction, it's a rather pedestrian assembly: white bread, meat and milk. Iskender's genius lay in the sauce, singeing butter until it picks up contrasting nutty and acrid flavors then blending this into the sweet-sharp juice of fresh tomatoes. Cubed pide soaks up much of this liquid so you're not cheated of the best part.
Also intriguingly authentic, pureed lentils yield a thin and surprisingly Gordian soup, lifted by herbal highlights wavering between mint and pepper, floating but tugged back down by deftly layered spices content to grovel in more earthy pleasures. The restaurant's menu features several variations on borek, another Turkish classic. Yet on an evening—early on a Friday evening, mind you—when I set out specifically to sample a few of these filled pastries, my waitress returned with troubling news: The kitchen was out of borek.
It's usually a plus when restaurants run short of ingredients and refuse to compromise. But much of their menu's warm appetizer selection involves pastry, so the borek no-show knocked choices down to the aforementioned soup and a range of cold starters. Besides, this occurred at the beginning of a weekend, when most establishments stock up for expected crowds—which leads me to believe either management suffers from occasional planning lapses or the person responsible for rolling dough took a post-Thanksgiving sick day. Or, just maybe, because I did not call ahead to reserve a table, they prepared only enough for the large party in the next room, apparently all of Turkish descent.
Come to think of it, waitstaff ushered me to the same spot on each of my visits—a table in the narrow space up front, by the picture window, directly under a throbbing neon "open" sign. The larger dining area to the rear, while never full, served as home on each occasion to Middle Eastern guests, separated from the lone "outsider" two-top by a partial wall. Others I spoke with relay similar experiences, as if restaurant management assumes passers-by, seeing a pasty white guy holding vigil, will be lured inside to join in the fun. Bunch of native Turks in the window? No way—that restaurant can't be any good.
The room is, however, pleasant enough, aside from cracked speakers piping distorted music and the glaring neon. It's kinda like sitting in a bad detective movie, until interrupted by the wailing foreign language vocal and eventual, clattering arrival of dishes. To their credit, waitstaff approach with reserve, yet answer questions readily. And apologize when half the menu is unexpectedly nixed. The other half includes a few memorable items. A sharp undertone slices through the hummus, without piercing the complex, mellow, gritty, even somewhat bitter chickpea mash. Pools of olive oil further ground this impressive spread. Acili, composed of tomatoes, mint, parsley and a modicum of hot pepper first rolls across the palate as a friendly invitation, bright and sweet. The gentle marinara flavor disperses quickly, however, leaving in its wake a deceptively dry, grassy sensation—lasting only a moment before the paste bristles and rears up, unleashing a surge of heat. Ground lamb in the adana entrée leaves your palate quivering under a salt attack. But it's a mere hit and run. Instead of roaming at will across your larynx, the saline-infused juices settle, never really letting go, though refusing to plunder. Freed by the salt's reticence, minty herbs arise and begin to express themselves over the rustic flavor of fatty lamb.
Standing in opposition to these intricate offerings, another set of menu items calls into question the chef's grasp of checks and balances. Marinated with extraordinary enthusiasm, at least on this particular evening, the leafy dolma wrap rallied citrus-laced rice filling into one intensely sour force, unstoppable unless—as my dinner companion was compelled to do—you squint, squirm and set the thing aside after one bite. Beautifully crisp falafel carried a similar acidity, less forceful but equally capable of dissolving tissue. An accompanying yogurt dip just works to further this wicked, puckering effect. The beyti entrée features nicely seasoned lamb but falters thanks to a flatbread cover so saturated with drippings and watery residue that bits of dough cling unpleasantly to your teeth. While they make their own baklava, it should awaken the palate with dense, bittersweet honey. Instead, the pastry just lolls there, as if ashamed of its impotent flavors.
Hey, wait a minute...if they can do baklava, why not borek?
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In between these extremes, a number of mundane dishes wait in the background, hoping to be picked: creamy, although rather tame baba ghanouj; a reasonably lively cacik—the Turkish version of tzatziki; gentle lamb kuzu cooked medium rare, oozing warm and earthy tones...offset by a paddy of sodden rice.
The restaurant opened toward the end of 2007 and struggled to attract attention. New owners purchased the place earlier this year, hoping to turn it around, apparently through such devices as uneven cooking, well-placed diners and one other visual trick: One evening I was forced to park toward the back of the small building. Good thing I reserved a seat this time, I thought. Few spots remained amongst a lot crammed nose to tail with vehicles. Inside, however, only three other parties sat, dining quietly. Seems patrons of neighboring joints freely park out front, lending Shish the appearance of popularity.
Don't be fooled.
15107 Addison Road, Addison, 972-726-0100. Open 11 a.m.-11 p.m. daily. $$