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Kibbeh ($6), an egg-shaped finger food with at least 50 variations in Middle Eastern cookery, was composed of two layers: an outer coat of fine bulgur wheat mixed with pounded lamb, the inside ground lamb spiced with onion, pepper, and parsley. The two layers are rolled up by hand and deep-fried (not baked, Unal insists, which is the lazy man's version). That outer layer crisps up nicely, keeping the inside moist and steamy, a textural variation in every bite. It comes with a thin yogurt sauce (cacik) seasoned with dill and mint, very different from the lebneh in flavor and consistency. Little balls of fried falafel ($6), made from freshly ground chick peas, were spiced with parsley and deep-fried. I wish we'd had room to try the borek ($6), a delicate, cigar-shaped filo pastry wrapped around feta cheese.
Our main course arrived sizzling in a shallow iron pan: shrimp guvec ($17), a traditional Turkish casserole dish. Sweet, firm shrimp had been briefly simmered with tomatoes, green pepper, and onion (this homey dish, made with lamb or chicken, is sometimes prepared in a terra-cotta pot in Turkey, broken open to serve). It was fresh and flavorful. We also ordered another national dish, köfte ($12): beef loin ground with onion, parsley, cumin, and pepper, then grilled. These extrafancy meatballs are accompanied by a dish of red pepper paste (a fiery ketchup) and might be a candidate for the best unconventional burger in town.
Iskender kebab ($15) is the house special. We'll have to wait for our next visit to try it. The cooks slice fresh-grilled lamb from the spit (shawarma), and layer it inside a hot dish lined with bread, drizzled with tomato sauce and yogurt, and topped with sliced tomatoes and peppers. It's a favorite dish that remains on the menu despite seasonal changes (Unal revises the menu every three months or so for variety and to test different Turkish foods). A sampler plate ($19) comes with shawarma, Adana kebab (ground lamb cooked on a skewer), lamb shish kebab, chicken shish kebab, köfte, and rice pilaf. Swordfish, grouper, salmon, shrimp, and snapper ($18 to $22) can be grilled or baked.
Kuneffe is the house dessert ($4.95). The cooks press finely shredded filo dough around a mozzarella-like cheese, fry it in butter with a touch of molasses, and serve it warm with sugar syrup sprinkled with pistachios. As stuffed as we were, it was impossible to stop eating it until we'd practically licked the dish. Kazandibi is described as "browned doughy milk with cinnamon, made in a secret natural way." And of course, there's the thick ground coffee ($2.50) that the Turks invented, along with their legendary hospitality.
In short, we loved everything. If Hollywood doesn't flock to fill those empty tables soon, we'll chalk it up to an apt old Turkish proverb: "You can't teach an ass to appreciate fruit compote."