Every once in a while, magazines like Conde Nast Traveller and Travel & Leisure hype the same vacation spot. In the early '90s, for instance, Thailand made all the covers, becoming as familiar to readers as Cindy Crawford is to subscribers of Cosmopolitan and Glamour. The phenomenon is less the work of a conspiracy and more the successful effort of a given country's board of tourism. The strength of the American dollar in that country is also a factor.
But you don't have to read magazines to know the destination of choice. Nor do you have to hop on a plane to reap some of the cultural benefits. I've observed yet another phenomenon: When a country is popularized by the media, restaurants featuring that country's ethnic cuisines begin to pop up all over the place. This summer, Turkey is the travel industry's poster child, and South Florida has seen the recent emergence of several Turkish eateries -- Cafe Efesus in Miami Beach, Istanbul in Hollywood, and the two-month-old Istanbul Cuisine on North University Drive in Sunrise, included.
Dining at Istanbul Cuisine is like dining in Turkey itself: The architecture is intriguing, but the way the roads are laid out is confusing, with some streets often leading to nowhere. At the 240-seat, two-story restaurant, which used to be a Bobby Rubino's, many details bring to mind the Ottoman empire: the high-domed ceiling streaked with strings of lights, the Turkish live music and belly-dancing (on the weekends), and the interior appointments -- red-leather booths, burgundy carpet, heavy wooden chairs. And, for the most part, the fare is well prepared and attractively presented. But the service is ridiculously disorganized, with orders and requests forgotten, mixed up, or simply ignored.
Our waiter, for instance, had to check to see if the kitchen was serving the bamya sote -- okra stew with green peppers, tomatoes, and olives -- that I wanted for dinner one evening. "If you don't have it," I told him, "I'll take the turlu instead." Turlu, a mix of sauteed mushrooms, eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, and onions, sounded as pleasantly light as the okra stew. But when the main courses arrived, I was given neither; the waiter hadn't ordered anything at all. He ran back to the kitchen to rectify his error, but by the time my dish arrived, everyone in my party had finished eating. And I couldn't quite figure out which dish I was eating. Though admittedly delicious, it seemed to be a combination of the stew and the turlu.
That same evening, the kitchen made us lamb shish kebab instead of the chicken version we'd ordered, and the bar poured me a glass of red wine as opposed to the pinot grigio I'd requested. Dessert wasn't available at all. We had to settle for strong, sweet Turkish coffee.
On another visit, we asked about the soup of the day. Red lentil, the waiter informed us. Then he brought a bowl of it, despite the fact that we hadn't asked for it. I'd already sampled the lentil soup on a previous visit, and while pleased by the puree's velvety yet grainy texture, I wasn't quite as interested the second time around.
Istanbul Cuisine does have its strengths. The wait staff, though a bit lost, is tolerant; I brought three young children with me one day, and nobody flinched, even when my nephew started playing the drums left behind by the band. Portions are large, and prices are downright cheap when you consider that an entree of charbroiled lamb chops -- three meaty and succulent ribs served with white rice, steamed bulgur, a whole roasted tomato, sliced onions, and a bed of lettuce -- costs only $13.95. (The dinner and lunch menus are identical, however, so what's reasonable at night is a bit pricey midday.) And while half the menu is Turkish, which owner Hatice Webb, who comes from Istanbul, says caters to the area's 2000 Turks, other items are generically Middle Eastern, attracting local Israeli, Arab, and Armenian populations.
Kebabs, for example, come from Persia, known today as Iran. In the 12th Century, nomadic Turks adopted these skewered, grilled meats and made them their own. Restaurants in Turkey dedicate entire menus to the art of kebab-making, and Istanbul Cuisine offers fourteen kebab entrees, four of which may be served on flatbread instead of a bed of rice and smothered in yogurt and frothy butter. We were delighted by the mixed kebab main course, which features four skewers. Adana, ground lamb, and beyti, ground lamb mixed with garlic and other spices, were similar in design and appeal, crisp grilled coins redolent of charcoal. The swordfish kebab was superior, its juicy chunks of steaklike fish alternating with roasted onions, bell peppers, and tomatoes. The only disappointment was the chicken, which was as dry as the ashes of an old campfire. All the kebabs were served, like the lamb chops, with rice and bulgur, roasted tomatoes, and salad accompaniments.
The ubiquitously Middle Eastern falafel wasn't as successful. The deep-fried chickpea patties were so overcooked, they looked like vegetarian hockey pucks. Inside they were mealy and bland. The accompanying hummus, however, was smooth and tasty. The ground chickpeas had been softened with tahini (sesame paste) and olive oil, then flavored with garlic and parsley.
Hummus is also available as an appetizer, along with eight other cold, salad-type starters. The best way to enjoy a selection of salads is to order the assortment platter, set up like a Seder plate with scoops of hummus, eggplant salad, baba ghannouj, ezme, tabbouleh, and lebni. Turks are whizzes in the kitchen with eggplant, peeling it decoratively, scraping out bitter seeds, soaking it in salt water so the spongy vegetable won't absorb too much oil, and preserving its creamy color in lemon juice. As a result the eggplant salad at Istanbul Cuisine consisted of luscious, bright jewels of eggplant, green and red peppers, onions, and tomatoes coated with olive oil, lemon juice, and chopped parsley. Ditto the baba ghannouj. This pureed eggplant dip was pristine in color and smoky in flavor.
Also wonderful was the ezme, a mince of tomatoes, peppers, onions, and walnuts spiked with lemon juice and olive oil. Tabbouleh salad was a little too dependent on parsley, which overwhelmed the main ingredient of bulgur wheat. And the lebni -- yogurt mixed with chopped walnuts, garlic, and mint -- turned out to be more like cacik -- yogurt mixed with cucumbers, dill, and mint. We scooped up the aforementioned salads with freshly warmed pita bread and also enjoyed two unexpected treats: piaz, or white kidney beans soaked in olive oil and vinegar; and grape leaves, supple cigarlike pastries stuffed with rice, dill, and parsley in a lemony sauce.
Speaking of cigars, half a dozen cigeri boregi, or "finger pies," were crunchy and pungent. Deep-fried phyllo dough oozed feta cheese and parsley. The only other hot appetizer, arnavut cigeri, would have sufficed as a main course. A heaping pile of calves' liver nuggets, sauteed until crackling on the outside, rich and soft on the inside, was partnered with shaved white onions and parsley.
On a subsequent visit, we succeeded in snagging four squares of baklava, the only dessert in the house. Though the menu urges patrons to "please ask about our fresh desserts of the day," I haven't been able to turn up anything but this nutty pastry. The phyllo dough and minced pistachio filling were saturated with butter and syrup. Istanbul Cuisine needs to work on keeping these sweets in stock.
Training the wait staff wouldn't hurt, either. Nor would having handymen work during off-hours. At lunch one day, the buzz of drills was enough to override the whine of any child. Turkey is this year's destination of choice, but unless the restaurant takes a more heads-up approach, Istanbul Cuisine clearly won't be.
Istanbul Cuisine. 3806 N. University Dr., Sunrise, 954-578-0166. Lunch and dinner daily from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday until midnight.
Mixed appetizer platter
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