Istanbul Café, New Haven
★★½ [Very Good - Superior]
When fate shuffles the cards, citizens of once-powerful empires find themselves hungering for any and everything that evokes their country’s glory days. For Turkey, these are the Ottoman years (especially during the 16th and 17th centuries), an era of military might and cultural achievement celebrated in song and story, and more recently, in a blockbuster movie. Conquest 1453, which tells the story of the taking of Constantinople by 21-year-old Sultan Mehmet II (released last year in 12 Middle Eastern countries, Germany and the United States), is the highest-grossing film in Turkish history. At home and abroad, the Ottoman Empire rides again, influencing art, design and decor, clothing, jewelry and—because nothing evokes time and place like food—Turkish cuisine.
In New Haven, a little gem of a Turkish restaurant called Istanbul Café is ahead of the curve. It’s been around for a while but early on Adnan Efe and his partner, chef Murat Siridin, decided to make the food “more authentic” and to introduce some of the blandishments of Ottoman Empire cuisine. And so they have, judging by a recent visit.
Nothing too radical, just refining and sometimes redesigning traditional recipes to create a roster of dishes notable for their subtlety and diversity. The menu, especially the appetizer list, doesn’t quite capture these nuances and looks at first glance like a roundup of the usual suspects: hummus, yogurt spiked with cucumber and mint, carrot and spinach purée, and dear old stuffed grape leaves. But one nibble leads to another and another. Every appetizer we try sparkles.
The grape leaves are delicately opulent and taste freshly made, filled with rice, browned onion, mint and dill, pine nuts and sweet black raisins. Cooked in excellent olive oil, they’re served warm. Carrot purée tastes as bright as it looks, with artichokes and creamy yogurt spiked with garlic.
Antep ezme, a sort of chopped salad with walnuts and parsley, is new to me. Named for the city of Antep in Eastern Turkey, it’s hot as Hades, fired by incendiary green peppers. Five-alarm chili and barbecue fans will love this—and know enough to reach for one of the soothing yogurt dips between bites.
In Turkey, there are restaurants that make imam bayildi (stuffed eggplant) the way somebody’s grandmother made it, and others so cutting-edge you can hardly recognize this culinary icon without a program. Istanbul Café avoids both extremes. The dish, which takes its name from a legendary Muslim cleric who tasted it and swooned with delight, is comfortingly familiar here, but lighter than other versions because it’s made with baby eggplant and presented as an appetizer rather than a main course.
Vegetables and grains are prominent in Turkish cuisine and at Istanbul Café, where it is easy to compose a meal of them. Meat-free dishes are designated with a tiny heart—like getting a star for good deportment.
There are two moussakas on the menu, one made with meat and one without. But it’s not just a matter of omission, the dishes are entirely different. Vegetarian moussaka layers eggplant, zucchini, carrots, tomato and potatoes, tops them with cheese and a rich béchamel sauce and bakes the lot in a deep casserole where the flavors mix and mingle and turn into something a lot more luscious than the sum of its parts.
Patlican moussaka, on the other hand, consists of pan-fried eggplant, a thick layer of ground meat (which the menu calls “a rich meat sauce”), potato, tomato and sautéed onion. Baked and served in a low casserole, it’s rather dry, but the stringy melted cheese on top adds a lot.
The presence of moussaka on the menu, which many consider the national dish of Greece, reminds us that Turkey’s expansionist past added many territorial specialties to its culinary repertoire. Adana kebab, a spicy minced-meat kebab, takes its name from a city in southern Turkey where, rumor has it, “cooks regularly make Adana kebabs up to 36 feet long.” Ours are considerably shorter, with an intriguing flavor but overcooked for my taste. As are the baby lamb chops we also sample. If you want your meat rare or medium-rare, remember to say so.
Our tour of Turkish entrées culminates in hunkar begendi or Sultan’s delight—an Ottoman classic. Made with lamb, chicken or vegetarian (we choose chicken) our hunkar begendi arrives looking almost contemporary, a delicious cornucopia of meat and vegetables forming a colorful mosaic on a white china plate. The star of the display is a ring of smoked eggplant purée that, unlike many smoked foods, is not too salty.
Service? The word “meandering” comes to mind. When our waiter finally takes our order, he is expansively helpful. Then, inexplicably, he disappears for long periods of time. We relax and enjoy the pace.
When it comes to dessert, Istanbul Café remains faithful to authenticity. No, my pet, there is no chocolate lava cake, but you won’t miss it when you taste the baklava. Forget the slabs of filo dough sodden with honey you find at delis and diners. Think delicate flaky pastry leaves layered with crushed walnuts, pistachios, sugar and cloves. Equally appealing are traditional Turkish milk pudding made from scratch, creamy rice pudding cooked in a clay pot, and künefe, baked shredded filo with cheese filling.
We end with Turkish coffee in a porcelain cup—and linger. We are in a storefront restaurant in a modern city but it feels like we’re ensconced in an inner room in Old World Turkey with damask draperies, oil paintings and Oriental carpets, waiting for the belly dancer to arrive. On Fridays and Saturdays, she does.
245 Crown St., New Haven, 203/787-3881, istanbulcafect.com
Open daily. Sunday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday & Saturday till 11 p.m, Wheelchair access. Major credit cards. Price range: appetizers $6 to $12, entrées $15 to $24, desserts $5 to $7.