Turkey is the only country in the world located on two continents, a bridge of sorts among Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, making it one of the world's true melting pots. And so it goes with the food, a commingling of many cuisines in one. With its roots in Ottoman culture, Turkish fare has developed into a unique fusion of Asian, Mediterranean, and Balkan flavors, with dishes varying from one region of the country to the next.
At A La Turca, the food is emblematic of the country's southeast region — cities like Urfa and Adana — where the kebab reigns supreme. Meat, spices, and olive oil are often an integral part of each recipe, and Istanbul native Ugur Unal is steadfast in ensuring each is prepared to exacting standards.
Unal opened A La Turca in downtown Hollywood in 2005, shortly after relocating his family — including his mother and sister — from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where they owned two Italian restaurants. Today, the restaurant has relocated from its original location off Hollywood Boulevard's main drag to a new space nearly twice the size, allowing for seating of larger parties.
The 3,000-square-foot space a few blocks east and one block south of the original location wasn't planned, says Unal, who had wanted to expand the restaurant into a neighboring space and then was forced to move when his ceiling collapsed. The new restaurant has been a welcome change — still familiar, with an upscale touch while retaining the same color palette of muted browns and grays. New features include rugged stone walls and a bar that serves beer and a variety of Turkish wines. A sidewalk patio allows for alfresco dining, and whether inside or out, the white-tablecloth service is flawless.
Although Unal considers himself the executive chef of the restaurant, designing the menu to reflect authentic Turkish fare, he no longer works the line. Instead, he travels his native Turkey extensively, sourcing ingredients and recipes to ensure the most authentic experience and freshest flavors. As a result, everything — from the sweet Turkish olive oil to the spices, even some fish and meat — is delivered directly from the homeland, while breads and desserts are made in-house from scratch.
A La Turca's menu opens with a selection of more than 20 hot and cold starters — or meze — small sharing plates served with a basket of pita baked fresh on the premises twice daily ($6 to $12). An offering of the best can be found with the chef's meze sampler, a tasting plate of several cold meze, including hummus, roasted eggplant, and cacik — a tangy, almost cheese-like yogurt flavored with cucumber and drizzled with the house olive oil.
Although several meze are enough to split among friends, the menu extends further with Mediterranean-style small plates with offerings like the rocket salad, nothing more than fresh arugula dressed in lemon juice and the restaurant's sweet house olive oil; or a fragrant red lentil soup ($5 to $13).
The entrée section is a meatcentric list of lamb and beef dishes, each prepared in-house for a near perfect execution of each recipe. Unal says he replicates the cooking processes he sees in his travels, from sourcing to preparation, in his own kitchen.
"I've learned from the best to understand everything, from the way it is prepared to the way it is cooked," says Unal. "When the chefs in Turkey hear that I am bringing their recipes back to the U.S., they are always eager to share whatever information they can. They're proud — and they know my restaurant is too far away to be considered competition."
The döner — known as shawarma in the Middle East or gyro in Greece — is a house specialty, a true Turkish dish made of lamb, veal, or beef cooked on a vertical rotisserie. At A La Turca, the meat is prepared daily and cooked to order, Unal explains, a house blend of 50/50 lamb and beef. It's hand-chopped using traditional tools and pounded into a giant ball before being placed on a spit that rotates alongside burning wood coals, allowing the fat and juices to baste slowly, cooking up char-free. As orders are placed, the heat cooks only the outermost layer, which is cut into fine strips before serving.
Although the traditional kebab is an excellent way to indulge — as are any of the ground beef or lamb dishes — the best way to sample döner here is with the Iskender plate, a specialty of the city of Bursa, where the dish was created. A heaping portion of thin-sliced meat is presented on an oblong plate over a light, fresh tomato sauce speckled with shreds of pita soaked in butter and a helping of fresh yogurt on the side for a Grand Bazaar's worth of flavor ($19).
For the meat-free folks, a falafel platter is a welcome reprieve, served as a generous half-dozen portion. A traditional Middle Eastern dish, the street-food-style chickpea fritters are deep-fried for a crunchy outer shell that gives way to a tender, moist interior. They're served with a whipped tahini dipping sauce, a side of hummus and eggplant, and a fluffy tabouli ($15).
For a sweet ending, instead of a cloying sweet strip of baklava, the sakiz pudding extends the escape to the Mediterranean for one more dish. A unique Turkish dessert, it's made with a liqueur produced from the resin of the country's native mastic tree. The custardy treat is firm and creamy — more pana cotta that pudding — with a notably pine-like aroma and served with a spackling of fresh-ground cinnamon ($6).
It's only fitting to end a meal at A La Turka with a Turkish coffee, Unal insists. Finely ground beans are boiled in a special pot known as an ibrik, and the drink is delivered in a small, shiny metal cup. Often served with sugar, the single shot of strong, rich brew is reminiscent of Cuban coffee. The hint of spice and slightly grainy texture from unsettled grounds as they make their way to the rim of the cup give it an undeniably exotic twist.
"If you're looking for a true taste of Turkey, A La Turca is the closest you'll get without the trip," says Unal.