Food & Drink Ezme’s ennui

At Istanbul Café, exotically named dishes prove more agreeable than provocative

There is an expectation that unfamiliar cuisines are obliged to be exotic and challenging, and must thrill our taste buds in new and unexpected ways. This is the case with cuisines such as Burmese, Tahitian, Mongolian, just as it should be the case with Turkish food, despite its nodding acquaintance with almost every kitchen in the eastern Mediterranean. But expectations are often subverted by experience, as a recent visit to Istanbul Café, a “Turkish and Mediterranean Kitchen,” proved. The most exotic aspect of the evening was provided by a belly dancer going through the motions — but with a sword balanced on her head.

Imam Bayildi, which translates to “the Imam fainted,” is a dish of baked baby eggplant filled with tomatoes, onion, garlic, and green peppers. It is just one of the vegetarian dishes available at Istanbul Café. (Photo by Laura McKenzie)

In quest of the new and thrilling, we skipped the appetizers common to Greek and related cuisines — dolmas, hummus, and babaganoush — in favor of Tarator and Ezme. The names, sounding like a pair of doomed, classical lovers, conjured up flights of fancy. Tarator, alas, was far from being a star-crossed swain. Though the plate’s stiff yogurt sauce was pleasantly tart and the chopped walnuts folded into it crunchy, the result was more agreeable than provocative, and any evidence of the advertised spicing was absent. As for Ezme, she had promised a spicy seven-veiled combination of roasted bell and banana peppers, tomatoes, garlic, parsley, and roasted walnuts. Lemon was provided for squeezing and it was required, with salt, to give her a lift; the peppers appeared not roasted; and while the finely chopped mixture did provide crunch and hints of garlic, it wasn’t thrilling. I’d try both again, but with vastly lowered expectations.

Imam Bayildi: Now there’s a dish to inspire rampant romanticism. The name means “the Imam fainted,” and reportedly refers to a learned cleric being overcome by the creation’s exquisite taste. All this from a baked baby eggplant. Istanbul had substituted an eggplant that was at least adolescent, but its filling of tomatoes, onions, garlic, and green peppers one-upped some classic recipes by adding toasted pine nuts and cheese. The dish, a mellow blend of roasted vegetable flavors, didn’t provoke swooning spells, but it was easily the most fantasy-fulfilling of the evening.

Istanbul Café

3720 NW Loop 410
11am-10pm Mon-Sun
Price range: $10-15
Credit cards
Bathrooms not
wheelchair accessible

Karisik Izgara, lest you be misled by exotic names, was actually a mixed-grill platter, distinguished by especially succulent kofte kebabs of ground lamb and beef. Two lamb offerings, a small chop and a “sis” kebab, were carefully cooked to no more than medium and pleased as well. But the doner kebab of thinly sliced, pressed meat was dry and uneventful, and the chicken kebab offered nothing new. A lightly grilled tomato and rice rounded out the presentation. Couscous was the base of a dish of sliced beef sautéed with a cornucopia of vegetables and ostensibly served with a “mild curry sauce.” The chef must have been too busy sending platters to the table of men occupying a far corner of the restaurant, since the sauce was altogether absent, leading to a supremely boring dish despite the appealingly fluffy couscous.

Hope springs eternal at dessert time, and Turkish cuisine usually rises to the occasion with treats bearing names such as Ladies’ Navels, Lips of the Beauty, and Turkish Delight. Although the latter is the name of a vegetarian dish at Istanbul, none of these desserts are available to titillate the taste buds or other senses (though there is baklava). We sighed and selected rice pudding. Pure white, with a henna-colored streak of ground cinnamon on top, the pudding tasted more like a custard and apparently was made principally of ground rice. Yet its lightly sweet flavor was supremely satisfying. Sometimes food is just food.

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