One of my favorite food memories is eating a cucumber on the street in Istanbul. It was hot, we were tired out by haggling in the Grand Bazaar, discouraged by the experience of being blonde in Turkey, and tired of avoiding fresh fruit for the sake of our guts.
A street vendor pulled out a cucumber from his cart, peeled it with a flicker of his long knife, and handed it to me with a shake of salt in a twist of paper.
It was better than water for a dying man.
I'll never forget it, and neither will those close to me, because whenever a food or drink is particularly refreshing, I am apt to bring up that cool Turkish cucumber. Some people--my children, for instance--are apt to pre-empt me, saying something like, "Not the one about the cucumber again, Mom," or, "I know, I know, the cucumber in Turkey."
In that exotic place, the simplest thing was the most refreshing.
Well, the summer has been proof once again that Texas is not actually habitable, and that all those guys from Tennessee and Mexico who settled here were out of their minds not to walk a little farther or stay where they were. This is no more a place where humans should live than Venus is, and this sentence is proof of the damage heat can do.
We've all been looking for relief wherever we could find it. So on a three-digit evening, we went to check out Dallas' new and only Turkish restaurant, Cafe Istanbul, figuring if simplicity soothed in exotic Istanbul, a taste of the exotic would be a relief now.
The little cafe is a step away from the everyday; high-budget designers could take a cue from Cafe Istanbul. Inspired by the owner's favorite Aegean resort town, the interior is a stage set: aging beams, kilim rugs, rough plaster, and bright blue paint make you feel far away from Inwood Village--not as far as the actual Aegean, perhaps, but it does take your mind off hot concrete. Sickle moons and stars everywhere remind you of the Turkish flag--tables are set with candles in cobalt stemware with gold moons and stars. There are even old cupboards filled with jewelry, belts, bags, and trinkets, like a bit of a bazaar and it is all for sale--I bought a silver ring.
The owner, Serdar Toprak, was working the front of the restaurant that evening. He was a friendly host and a thoughtful server, but the Turkish are traditionally merchants and we are, too, so before I could get to my business of studying the food, my husband bought a tray of 36 rings for his store, our guest bought a kilim footstool for his, everyone exchanged business cards--and this was before we'd finished our first glass of wine. Toprak is also the designer of Cafe Istanbul and the importer of those pretty kilim purses, benches, and rings we were eyeing. He has a showroom at the Trade Mart, but his food background includes working at Cafe Royale when Paul Pinnell was there and a stint at Lombardi's, so he knows the restaurant business.
When I called and asked if Cafe Istanbul served Turkish and Middle Eastern food, the answer was, this is "Turkish Mediterranean" food, not Middle Eastern. Boy, the lines between those countries are strong.
Much of what we ate was not that different from other Middle Eastern food--any of you who have ordered a meze plate would have guessed that the Turkish meze tabagi would be a plate full of appetizers, sort of an antipasto platter. But there is a big difference in style. At Cafe Istanbul, the meze held terrific tarama salata, the fluffiest, whitest, lightest I ever ate, and "no cream or eggs," insisted Toprak, who told us his chef (whom he brought from Turkey) made the traditional red caviar dip with whipped potatoes. Hummus was a familiar blend of garbanzos, olive oil, garlic and lemon; acili, which means "spicy," was hot stuff, a spicy red dip in a cool base of bulgur, pre-cooked and soaked in spices and pepper which further mellowed the grain's texture as they fired up the flavor. We demolished two dishes of pita bread dipping and spreading.
Perversely, we wanted to try the hot appetizers, the "Doner pizza" and the Ispanakli borek, which sounded like Greek spanokopita; unfortunately, the kitchen had not prepared them. The "Istanbul salata," a plate of concentric ruby tomatoes (where did he find them?) with crumbles of feta, chopped cucumber, and a dressing of garlic, lemon, vinegar and oil, was as refreshing as my famous cucumber, and all the grilled, skewered food we tried seemed natural for Texas tastes.
The house specialty, Istanbul doner kebab, I remember seeing prepared in Turkey, but I've never had it here. It's closest to Greek gyros in concept, but the flavor is miles away, and actually, as Toprak described the preparation, I was reminded more of Indian tandoor cooking. Lean beef is marinated and tenderized for two days in milk and yogurt flavored with cayenne, oregano, and cumin. Then the chef cuts thin slices and builds it up on a kind of skewer one to two feet high. The whole thing is cooked on a rotisserie, then sliced thinly. I remember eating it piled on pita bread like a taco; at Cafe Istanbul, we were served an enormous portion--plenty to split between two--over fluffy rice with a nice saute of summer vegetables. The Iskender doner was the same tender meat in a spicy tomato sauce, served over a base of pita bread with a barely tangy yogurt sauce, built on the principle of the open-face roast beef sandwich but extremely exotic and pretty exciting. White meat of chicken is also marinated two nights before it is skewered and cooked.
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Delicious baklava, layers of paper-thin filo pastry in syrup, came with sekerpare, a traditional Istanbul dessert like a little oval cookie made of flour, butter, sugar, and eggs, melting in the mouth when it combined with the syrup on the plate. The intense sweetness can only be managed with a tiny cup of real Turkish coffee (yes, you can have decaf). All you could wish for is a fortune-teller to read the grounds left in your cup.
And a temperature drop of 30 degrees or so.
Meanwhile, Cafe Istanbul is like a little vacation.
Cafe Istanbul, 5450 W. Lovers Lane, Suite 222, 902-0919. Open for lunch Monday-Saturday 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Open for dinner Monday-Friday 6 p.m.-10 p.m., Saturday-Sunday 6-11 p.m.
Meze Tabagi $9.50
Istanbul Doner kebab $8.95
Istanbul Salata $2.95 or $4.95
Iskender Doner $9.95
Izmir Tavuk Shish $7.95