It's been said that the three great cuisines of the world are French, Chinese, and Turkish. Well, quite a few of us can identify a plate of General Tso's chicken or a filet of sole bonne femme when it's plopped down in front of us, but how many Americans know their kibbeh from their köfte, their lebneh from their cacik? Turkish culture springs from one of the world's oldest and grandest civilizations (bringing us words like turquoise, from the color of its coastal seas), but the country is still a mystery to Westerners -- if anything, we may have a vague appreciation for the Turks' reputation as makers of exotic sweets, as ferocious warriors, and as anti-drug zealots: Troy meets Midnight Express.
But one Hollywood family is hoping to make a dent in our collective ignorance: Ugur Unal, his sister Asli Unal, and mother Saniye Cakir opened A La Turca last May on Hollywood Boulevard with the wish to expose South Floridians to a world of Turkish delights. Ugur Unal may have big dreams: He told us that one Turkish restaurant in New York City seats thousands every night. But failing that, he can expect to draw at least 20 percent of his business from an expanding local Turkish community that doesn't have many options when craving flavors of home. There were a couple of lively tables of Turkish and Middle Eastern ex-pats dipping warm wedges of pita into plates of garlicky hummus both times we visited.
There's a bloody culinary revolution going on in downtown Hollywood, and it ain't gonna be pretty: Who stands and who falls remains to be seen. Try My Thai is knocking down walls to expand into a neighboring space; Beef Eater is opening a pub next door; the upscale Caribbean supper/nightclub Kalabash and Crocante Bakery have closed, and new or less established restaurants on the margins are struggling. Michael's Kitchen opened a couple of weeks ago to great fanfare; you're lucky if you can snag one of its 255 seats on weekends. Ethnic restaurants like A La Turca and its neighbor Delicias Peruanas, out of the limelight on the west end of Hollywood Boulevard near Dixie Highway, face a particularly tough challenge.
The menu at A La Turca is a draw, though. It's "Mediterranean," which means that it takes in a broad swath of Middle Eastern and even Southern Italian and Greek influences. The Turks and the Greeks have been historically antagonistic at least from the time way back when Paris (a Turk) abducted Helen (a Greek) and launched the Trojan wars. There have also been three modern wars and several occupations. Ask a Turk and he'll tell you the Greeks stole the culinary idea of shawarma (spiced, marinated, and pressed meat roasted on a spit), renamed it gyro, and took full credit for a delicacy they had no hand in inventing. Such comments only go to show that despite a general cooling of hostilities between two great cultures (due in part to pressure from the European Union), some wounds never heal.
But Greek co-options of Turkish foods, or at least cross-influences, account for why the menu at A La Turca seems familiar. You'll find stuffed grape leaves, hummus, and yogurts among the appetizers and shared Mediterranean staples like eggplant, roasted fish, shellfish, and falafel. And you'll recognize Italian influences in pasta dishes like Pasta Arabita, $9, tossed with grilled peppers, onions, mushrooms, and eggplant.
The Unals owned two Italian restaurants in Pittsburgh before they came south. Originally from Istanbul, Ugur came to the States to go to college; his mother and sister joined him later. The family moved to South Florida in search of a more convivial climate, and A La Turca is its first venture in Mediterranean cuisine. Asli, a pretty, friendly girl in her 20s, is usually there waiting tables and managing the front of the house. While Ugur knows his way around a kitchen, he scoffs at the idea that he'd try to cook Turkish himself: "It's too complicated," he says. He's hired two Turkish chefs to do the cooking. But he insists on freshness, and most of the menu, from bread to sticky desserts, is made in-house. Unal orders American lamb from Texas for marinated whole chops, skewers of kebab, sliced lamb for Iskender kebab, and ground lamb for kibbeh. The meat is prepped and ground in the Unals' kitchen. Specialty foods like a thick, fragrant, almost cheesy yogurt from Lebanon (lebneh, $6) are imported.
Décor is elegant: pressed white tablecloths, touches of gold on the walls (including painted eyes, a charm to warn off evil), cool stone floors, and cheerful wicker café tables set up outside under an awning. A belly dancer entertains on Wednesday nights, and there's live music on Saturdays.
We were starving when we arrived the first time, so we ordered lots of appetizers. A plate of spiced green olives arrived swimming in green-gold olive oil, and we made short work of it with a basket of warm, fragrant pita bread.
Red and black pepper, cumin, cinnamon, pine nuts, currants, mint, oregano, sumac, fenugreek, dill, clove, paprika, parsley, caraway seed, poppy seed, marjoram, allspice, fennel: A list of common Turkish ingredients reads like a who's who of the spice world. Most grew wild in the Mediterranean; what flavors the Turks couldn't grow, they imported. The seat of the Ottoman Empire was at the nexus of east and west trade routes, just one reason Turkish cuisine is so tasty and varied. Another is the liberal use of dairy products. They're not afraid of butter, and they've developed varieties of yogurt and fresh cheeses that add richness and savor to hot and cold dishes. The foods of Turkey are textural: A cold, marinated artichoke heart ($7), briny and bursting with juices, had a wonderful al dente firmness. Served with a few cold potatoes and crunchy carrots, it made an ideal starter. A plate of grape leaves ($6) wrapped around spiced rice was just as delicious -- mildly slippery leaves were tart and refreshing against the toothsome grains of rice. My favorite appetizer was the lebneh ($6), very thick yogurt, the consistency of sour cream but with a cheesy fragrance, sprinkled with paprika and scooped onto fluffy pita: The stuff is sinful.
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."
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