By David Minsky
By Nicole Danna
By Sara Ventiera
By Candace West
By Emily Dabau
By Doug Fairall
By Candace West
By Laine Doss
Ask an American what he thinks of the Turkish people or Turkish food and, if all goes well, you'll get a blank stare. What we don't know about Turkey would fill the dome of the Hagia Sophia.
Americans wishing to catch up could do worse than to begin with plates of dolma or baskets of cigar-shaped borek pastry filled with feta cheese. One of hundreds of Turkish finger foods, dolma are the delicious currency of hospitality in Ankara, a lunch staple, a midafternoon snack, a main course at dinner, and the first dish many Turkish girls learn to cook. Peppers and eggplant, or even sometimes melon or apple, are hollowed out and stuffed with rice, nuts, mint, cinnamon, allspice, and ground beef or lamb. There's a meatless dolma too ("false dolma") in which the rice, spice, and nut filling is swaddled like a papoose inside cabbage or grape leaves. South Floridians might begin with the dolma at Turquoise, in this case stuffed grape leaves, one element on a cold plate of mezze ($24.95) or served solo ($6.95).
Turquoise opened last month in Boca Raton's ever-more-lively restaurant district, Palm Plaza, between the stone crabs and the pizza, the southern arm of the original restaurant in Larchmont, New York. The outstanding decorative element in this understated, desert- and sun-colored space is a collection of Turkish glass lanterns of varying shapes and weights strung from the ceiling, lucent and jewel-like, in colors of azure, gold, ruby, and eggplant purple; they're mesmerizing and sensual. There's a cool outdoor patio with café tables and a little wooden bar near the entrance surrounded by a handful of stools. The menu at Turquoise south hits the grace notes of Turkey's extraordinary cuisine — half a dozen or more grilled fish from the Mediterranean (served whole or filleted, these are advertised on a chalkboard), tart mixed salads, skewered meats, falafel, lentil soup, and moussaka.
The food's delicious, but the staff still looks culture-shocked, as if they were hurled down into the plaza on a bolt from the sky. They've evidently had a crash course in the ways and means of local restaurant patrons. While they're friendly enough and solicitous, you sense a kind of dazed wariness: These Boca puppies can bite! On a second visit, as we were spooning baba ganoush onto Turquoise's spongy pita, we overheard a table of four exclaiming over the exoticism of eating yogurt with grilled lamb. Locals evidently face a steep learning curve.
When we returned for our second go at the zucchini pancakes ($8.95) and swarma ($21.95), we were identified as OK regulars. Turkish food, made to share, entails big plates of dips and finger food: seasoned spinach, or feta and parsley, wrapped in pastry; mashed white beans with tomato; chick peas doused in lemon; cold chopped salads scooped up with torn pieces of warm, grilled bread. But the tables at Turquoise are too cramped to handle such largesse; each visit from the staff requires a complex rearrangement of cutlery and glassware, of serving pieces plucked away from the pile like a game of pick-up sticks. The first time we went, our waiter nervously knocked over a glass of wine as he tried to wedge another plate onto our little table. Turquoise's owner stopped by when he recognized us on our second visit, commenting that he was still working on some difficulties in the service. I told him that during my waitressing days, I'd once tipped a fully loaded tray of drinks onto a table of well-heeled ladies, so I was hardly in a position to fuss over a single glass of spilled wine.
"Ah, you don't judge then," he offered. "If you judge, you can't love."
I took a sip from my glass of Ella Valley fumé blanc and thought about how his pithy precept applied to both dinner and marriage. A bottle of the Ella Valley white is just $35 from a wine list composed entirely of Turkish and Israeli vintners; these are wonderful wines at wonderfuller prices, ideally suited to enhance the fruity, acid flavors of Mediterranean chow. Even if I were judging, I'd consider this a splendid deal.
Turkey occupies a blessed location, insanely fertile land that harks back to some Edenic garden. The Turks have tried and failed to make something not grow in their endless acres of rice, citrus, cherries, dates, grapes, nuts, apricots, olives, eggplant, bulgar wheat, artichokes, lentils, potatoes, chick peas, zucchini, pumpkin, quince, apples, peppers, and plums. They also raise fat, happy cattle and sheep, used to make meat; dense, salty feta cheese; and yogurt with the consistency of clotted cream. The country is surrounded on three sides by water; there's hardly a sea creature that can't be brought up in some fisherman's net. Just about the only thing the Muslim Turks don't eat is pigs; otherwise, they've got a national bounty to rival the Italians. Turkey produces enough food to nourish its entire population in high style, with lots left over to export. I'm told it's hard for a visitor there to find comfort food from abroad — no Kraft mac 'n' cheese on the grocery shelves — and the dearth of imports has helped keep Turkish cuisine relatively pure. Food journalist Michael Pollan likes to say that if you want to stay healthy, don't eat anything that wouldn't have been familiar to your great-grandmother, a notion the Turks live by.