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.
Turquoise 501 SE Mizner Blvd., Boca Raton. Open for lunch and dinner daily 11 a.m. till 10 p.m. Call 561-393-9969.
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.
The Turks were famous for trading in their gastronomic treasures, as well as a gemstone the luminescent blue-green of the Aegean Sea that was named after them: turquoise. It's the dominant color in the gorgeous, abstract tiles the Turks used everywhere in their houses and monuments, and it is the color of the "evil eye" amulet they sometimes wear on bracelets and necklaces to guard against the envy of neighbors. Turquoise is a color so soft and cool, you can almost taste it, like inhaling pure ozone. Mediterranean flavors seem to inhabit the same wavelength; they're a natural match for summertime.
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Turquoise the restaurant specializes in whole grilled fish: Dorado, snapper, striped bass, brook trout, red mullet, and fillets of black and Chilean sea bass. The Dorado ($28.95) was exquisite: The whole fish, head and tail intact, is char-grilled, ladled with lemon, and sprinkled with freshly chopped oregano, parsley, salt, and pepper. The flesh is so moist that it falls away from the bone at the slightest pressure. They serve it with sautéed spinach and a chopped salad of tomatoes, red onions, and cucumbers.
A similar salad can be had as a main plate or an appetizer — the shepherd salad ($7.95, $8.95 with feta) combines green peppers, tomato, pickled hot peppers, parsley, and cucumbers in a sharp lemon and olive oil vinaigrette; it shakes every taste bud awake. We preferred the hot meze plate ($24.95) to the cold one, in part because the cold plate duplicates the baba ganoush or pilaki (white beans in tomato sauce) you get as a free starter with Turquoise's warm bread and because, at $24.95, it's one pricey platter of dips. With the hot meze, you get chickpea falafel, with its tasty combination of outer crunch and inner pillow; cigar-shaped sigara borek filled with cheese and herbs; and zucchini fritters that are heavenly dipped in yogurt and tahini.
Seafood couscous ($26.95) wasn't as shockingly good as the whole grilled fish; the nutty grain topped with shrimp, scallops, and squid sautéed with mushrooms, broccoli, and zucchini was fine but too familiar. We liked a mixed grill ($29.95) very much, though, a carnivorian feast including a baby lamb chop, succulent and pink; a rather ho-hum chunk of marinated and grilled chicken; a juicy lamb shish kebab; lots of grilled peppers and tomatoes; a patty made of chopped, seasoned beef; and a long sausage-shaped kebab made from grilled minced lamb mixed with mint and other spices — all of it cooked over an open flame and beautifully caramelized.
Between the salads and the half-dozen meat-free main courses, along with many cold and hot meze, vegetarians should be as happy here as their meat-eating friends and foes. If you have an ounce of space left to shove down a forkful of dessert, the sweet, buttery shredded wheat dish kadayif, served with pistachios ($4.95), is honey for a bear.