Could this be the year that Middle Eastern food becomes Dallas’ hottest culinary trend?
Signs appeared in summer of 2016, when a series of acclaimed halal fast-food spots opened their doors across the city, including Halal Guys, Big Guys Chicken & Rice, Amsterdam Falafelshop and, in Irving, Arabian Bites. Then, this winter, Zatar Lebanese Tapas took over Deep Ellum and rewrote that neighborhood’s playbook. And, following a glowing Observer review, the New York-based nonprofit Breaking Bread hosted a sold-out cultural exchange dinner at the Iraqi-run Bilad Bakery and Restaurant.
Ephesus Mediterranean Grill, a new Turkish restaurant on Central Expressway, seems poised to push the trend farther along. Founded by a veteran of the more established Pera Turkish Kitchen, Ephesus is the kind of restaurant where the first impression is misleading. Its atmosphere is peculiar, and its appetizers can be shaky, but dig deeper to reveal a kitchen turning out delightful Turkish comfort foods.
Let’s start with the bad news. Ephesus’ atmosphere is an earnest, and earnestly uncool, blend of formal and casual, with rich aqua-colored tablecloths and a brilliant collection of artisan plates from Turkey hanging on the walls. The plates alternate, with obsessive-compulsive precision, with a series of schlocky landscape paintings that look like they came from Michaels.
During the first course on my first visit, the lunch crowd was a mere trickle, the corny paintings had me unnerved and the appetizers simply were not good. A cup of red lentil soup ($5) was rather thin in texture, not watery exactly but not hearty either, and snowed in by a flurry of oregano. A little oregano goes a long way in a dish as simple as this; a lot of oregano makes it taste downright weird.
Feta cheese cigar pastries ($7) are a dish I always love in any preparation, because few things in life are better than a lot of cheese stuffed into a pastry and fried. Ephesus uses thick dough, however, and the result looks like pale white egg rolls. Better can be found at other Dallas spots, such as Zatar Lebanese Tapas or Laili.
The best starter choice is a sample platter of meze, the small dishes and dips that introduce a traditional Middle Eastern meal. $15.95 got us a huge platter of unusually thick, garlicky hummus; baba ghannoush (eggplant dip); a dip of diced feta cheese bound together by paprika; minty stuffed grape leaves; and pita bread still smoky from the oven. This was a bounty of great food, although the unusually tahini- and garlic-rich hummus proved a standout.
Keeping it simple is good advice for the main courses, too. That means kebabs, like iskender kebab ($17), a genuine pile of beef-lamb mixture, carved off the rotisserie and served under a tomato-based sauce. A thick slice of brown bread underneath sops up the sauce and grease. Crusty and sesame-studded at a meal’s beginning, by the end it is a sponge full of delicious meat and tomato juices. The beef-lamb mix is flavorful and moist, too.
Another dish just waiting for Americans to fall in love with it is beyti kebab ($17). This one’s a regular beef kebab skewer wrapped in a tortilla-like flatbread and doused in both spicy tomato sauce and, traditionally, a dollop of yogurt. Ephesus uses tzatziki in lieu of yogurt, which is odd, but the combo of medium spice, grilled meat and carbs is pretty hard to resist.
Hunkar begendi ($18) may be hard to pronounce (roughly: HOON-care BAY-end-ih) but it’s well worth getting to know. This dish starts with eggplant, roasted or broiled until smoky and then pureed with milk and cheeses. The traditional topping is slow-cooked fall-apart-tender lamb morsels, although grilled meat will do in a pinch. It’s grilled at Ephesus and diced up with a mix of fine-cut vegetables; the result is unconventional but deeply satisfying, a winter stew with notes of smoke and cheese, plus enough nutrients to pass for healthy.
Some main courses miss the mark. Lamb shish kebab ordered rare arrived with a bare hint of pink ($16), and the shrimp kebab ($18) was so badly overcooked that my friend had a hard time even inserting her fork. But these duds had silver linings, in the form of nice grilled veggies and a scrumptious rice pilaf so heavy on butter that my friend exclaimed, “At first I thought, ‘Oh wow, saffron rice!’ Then I realized, no, the yellow is just butter.” That same trait makes the mashed potato side essential.
Ephesus Mediterranean Grill has its shortcomings, like those overcooked shrimp or unsatisfying lentil soup. But the good stuff outnumbers them, especially for a diner keen to try the restaurant’s small, economical stash of Turkish beer and wine. And a dessert order of angelic, cinnamon-dusted kazandibi ($6), described as “Turkish flan,” can erase any hard feelings. The flavor is just right on the cheesy sweet pastry kunefe ($8), although it’s so messily made that it looks like one of my more alarming baking experiments.
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There are enough Turkish delights here — iskender and beyti kebabs, meze starters, kazandibi — that Ephesus deserves a recommendation and a healthy following of regulars. Maybe, if Dallas embraces the culinary trend toward Lebanese, Turkish, Syrian and Persian food, Ephesus and others will feel comfortable ditching the generic name “Mediterranean Grill,” a euphemism preferred by restaurateurs afraid of xenophobia. It’s a common mark of Middle Eastern restaurants in the area, including Zeytin, Andalous, Terra, Sahara, Shiraz, Verts, Shandiz, Villa, Mama Pita, Ali Baba, Shahrzad and Kiwi.
That’s a far more diverse world of cuisines than the term “Mediterranean grill” would suggest, and, whether Lebanese or Turkish or Iranian or something else, they pretty consistently serve up good food. Dallas, it’s time to go exploring.
Ephesus Mediterranean Grill, 10455 N. Central Expressway, No. 118. ephesusdallas.com, 972-290-0441. Open 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday.