Turkey was where Cleopatra met Antony and the Trojan horse came to fetch Helen of Troy; it was the birthplace of Abraham and St. Paul and the capital of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires. But most of us know little about this nation, and even less about its food, which draws from Muslim, Jewish, and Christian traditions, and which in turn influenced the cuisines of Greece, Russia, North Africa, and the Middle East.
It's never too late to learn, though, and there's no better way to do so than by dining at Turks, a new restaurant on South Beach that adheres to the sublime simplicity of traditional Turkish cookery.
There's not much Turkish about the spacious 100-seat room, except for thin strips of vaguely Middle Eastern black velvet drapes, which vertically stripe the windows facing Washington Avenue and Thirteenth Street. Everything else is nonculturally eclectic. Much of it -- like the tiled floors, cherrywood cupboards, beach-scene mural on the wall up front, and handsome, stone-topped bar -- are left over from the enigmatic Beauty's, which previously occupied the space. While the decor won't have you dreaming of Constantinople, the food, and the mood set by Turkish music piped through the speakers, just might.
There are few quirks at the restaurant, probably because it's the second Turks that Istanbul-born Orhan Yegen has opened. After selling the first (which still operates under the same name in New York), he brought his cooks, waiters, and maitre d' with him to this new venture. The experience of the staff pays off, not just in the kitchen (Yegen is chef), but at the front of the house, too. The waiters were adept at taking orders and delivering the food and drink, their knowledge and pride of which was unquestionable. At times they were a bit too enthusiastic, though, selling the cuisine so thoroughly that after their recitals I half-expected them to offer a toll-free number so we could order the cookbook.
The lofty expectations set by our waiter were reached right away with a trio of distinctly Mediterranean appetizer purees into which we dipped our warm, homemade flatbread. The tarama (you may know it as the Greek taramasalata), a smooth, creamy pink paste of fish roe crushed with milk-soaked breadcrumbs, egg yolk, lemon juice, and olive oil, was exemplary, as was the smooth hummus and a dish of charred eggplant puree. Starters that didn't have the consistency of baby food also were terrific, such as the gingerly grilled calamari tossed with some of the greatest flavor enhancers the world has ever known: olive oil, lemon juice, parsley, salt, and pepper. Turkish cuisine is, contrary to popular thought, rather mildly spiced (except for the southeastern dishes, where the peppery Arabic factor comes in), but the barbunya pilaki, an appetizer of red beans cooked with carrots and potatoes, was blandly underseasoned.
So was the brook trout "baked on a brick stone," which sounded interesting not only because the scarcity of this fish on Miami menus makes its appearance here a rare treat, but also because of the brick. This carnivorous fish with tasty flesh was fresh and competently cooked, but I had imagined it tasting different from a regular baked trout. Why else mention the brick?
Lobster tails, jumbo shrimp, salmon, swordfish, and red snapper are offered chargrilled. I threw a mild challenge to the kitchen by ordering the snapper, the leanest and thus least grill-friendly of the bunch; they responded with a deftly marked, sparklingly succulent fish accompanied by rice pilaf and a medley of cooked-just-right green beans, carrots, peas, and dill. Vegetables varied upon visits, but were consistently fresh and diligently prepared.
I passed on other chargrilled items, like Turkish-style meatballs; loin of lamb; breast of chicken; and the Maine lobster stuffed with crabmeat, shrimp, and scallops, and opted for a food that originated in Turkey before threading its way through the Balkans and Middle East: the shish, or suisu, kebab (suisu means skewer, kebab is roast meat). Four large, toothsome squares of medium-rare leg of lamb came with steamy rice pilaf, razor-thin slices of seasoned raw onion, and a lemon wedge. The other traditional accompaniment to kebabs, a diced Turkish salad of tomato, cucumber, and onion, is offered separately here. Filet mignon shish kebab is also available, for the Mary who doesn't want a little lamb.
Chicken adana is another type of grilled kebab, one in which the meat is minced, piquantly spiced with Turkish red pepper flakes (pul biberi), and hand-formed around a metal skewer. Turks' version bears a remarkable resemblance to a photo of adana kebabi in a cookbook I picked up at the Topkapi Museum: a long, flat kebab, a strip of pide (pita) bread running lengthwise underneath, rice, onion slices, and a roasted tomato on the side. I wonder, are the presentations of Turkish cuisine so rigidly adhered to, or does Yegan have the same cookbook? It doesn't really matter. The chicken was so delicious that I'll be returning to try it again.
Three of the five main courses listed under "home specials" are lamb-based (lamb, or more precisely mutton, is the most commonly eaten meat in Turkey). Baby lamb shanks and lamb baked with okra and tomato are both served atop the omnipresent pilaf (rice is such a common restaurant starch that it would be more interesting if another popular Turkish grain, like bulgur, were substituted in a few dishes). But the elti hunkar, cubes of tender lamb baked in tomato sauce, melted over a mound of something else entirely: charred eggplant blended seamlessly with Bechamel sauce and kasari cheese (a bit like Parmesan). The combination made for a most harmonious stew.
Istanbul is home to various pudding shops that look similar to one another, all offering an array of milk-based desserts lined up in well-lit pastry cases. One of the most inventive of these is a rice-flour pudding with finely shredded chicken breast. The consistency is so smooth, the flavor so subtle, that an unknowing person would never detect the poultry. Turks doesn't make this dessert, probably because you wouldn't order it, but they do tempt with a variety of other treats you'd find in Istanbul. My favorite was the kYnefe, a homemade cheese sandwiched between two layers of butter-soaked, shredded wheat-like noodle threads (kadaif), baked, and doused in sugar syrup. Rice pudding was also good, served in the burnt manner of Turkish custards, meaning cooked until the top caramelizes into a dark brown crust.
If you've acquired a taste for halvah, which has a high fat content and very sweet, slightly bitter flavor, then you'll appreciate the fine brand imported from Istanbul that's served here. Turkish coffee is another acquired taste, one that I evidently haven't picked up, for I found Turks' to be just like the real thing: unbearably acrid and murky. The average inhabitant of Turkey will consume up to ten cups of this stuff a day, though locals don't usually partake of it after dinner, preferring tea with their sweets.
A culinary instructor once told me that a chef's job is to cut up and apply heat to the divinely delicious foods that God put on Earth, attempting in the process to destroy as little of their natural flavor as possible. A slightly more famous teacher, Plato, said that the beauty of style, harmony, grace, and good rhythm depends on simplicity. The cuisine at Turks succeeds, quite simply, because it takes both of these lessons to heart.
1265 Washington Ave, Miami Beach; 305-695-0401. Open for dinner Sunday, Tuesday through Thursday, 5:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m., Friday and Saturday from 5:00 p.m. to 4:00 a.m.
Lamb baked with eggplant (elti hunkar)
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Lamb shish kebab