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Ancient Eggplant

Ephesus Grill may be a new restaurant, but its cuisine is from way back in the day

The floor of the hutlike enclosure is covered with sheepskins, and its walls are of rough-hewn wood. I recline against a pillow covered in a red fabric embroidered with gold threads. There's a kerosene lantern in the window. In the middle of the little room is a gigantic table, set low so you can eat while sitting on the floor. Two of the four private dining areas at Ephesus Grill, the Turkish restaurant on Westheimer, are outfitted this way.

"Are we supposed to take off our shoes?" I ask the waiter.

"Well, we do, but you can do whatever you want," he replies. One of my two dining companions rolls around on the floor wrestling with her boots. I'm thankful that I've elected to wear a brand-new pair of socks this evening. With our shoes lined up by the door, we relax against the rustic walls and look out the little windows. It's as if we're eating dinner in a shack on the side of a mountain, I remark.

Skip the mixed appetizer plate and go straight for the 
kabobs (here, the patlican, front, and 
iskender varieties).
Troy Fields
Skip the mixed appetizer plate and go straight for the kabobs (here, the patlican, front, and iskender varieties).

Details

Meze tabagi: $7.99
Iskender kabob: $10.99
Patlican kabob: $10.99
Mixed kabob: $16.99
Kunefe: $4.49
Turkish coffee: $1.99
6106 Westheimer, 713-526-2800. Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays; noon to 10 p.m. Sundays

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"Kind of like Heidi Goes to Turkey," one of my tablemates chortles. "Grandfather! Grandfather!" she pretends to holler.

Ephesus Grill occupies the former location of Rumi Turkish restaurant, which was mentioned in this column almost exactly a year ago ("Not That Turkey," December 19, 2002). In that column, I mentioned that Rumi didn't compare to the two other Turkish restaurants in town, Empire Turkish Grill on Memorial and Istanbul Grill & Deli in Rice Village. Luckily, the new Ephesus Grill is run by the same folks who own Istanbul.

As soon as we sit down we are brought glasses of water and a basket of hot flatbread. We order the mixed appetizer plate called meze tabagi, which includes a tablespoon of tabbouleh; a little bit of hummus that's too creamy for my taste; a loose version of ezme, which the menu describes as Turkish pico de gallo made with walnuts and parsley; a puree of charbroiled eggplant called begendi; and one rather bland stuffed grape leaf.

I'm disappointed by the indifferent appetizers at Ephesus. I think I've been ruined by Empire Turkish Grill in that department. Not only are the portions larger there, but also you get to compose your own meze plate by choosing your favorites from the entire appetizer menu. And that list of treats includes such exciting choices as the pink caviar spread tarama, sautéed spinach in white yogurt sauce, and the sour yogurt cheese called lebni. The little smudges of food on the appetizer plate at Ephesus are unimaginative and stingy by comparison.

Ephesus redeems itself with its grilled meats and roasted eggplant dishes. Patlican kabob, alternating chunks of eggplant and lamb cooked on skewers and served over a bed of savory bulgur pilaf, is a stellar example. The velvety charred eggplant melts into a splendid sauce over the garlicky grilled lamb chunks and the nutty cracked wheat. Iskender kabob is another standout entrée. It features slices of doner, a seasoned ground beef-and-lamb mixture that might remind you of Greek gyro meat, served over torn pieces of pita bread that have been tossed with tangy Turkish yogurt, tomatoes and hot butter.

At both Ephesus and Istanbul Grill, the flatbreads are served with a bowl of olive oil seasoned with a dried herb blend called zatar, which contains sesame, sumac and thyme. Zatar is a favorite of mine, but I've always thought of it as part of Lebanese or Arabic cuisine rather than Turkish.

The traditional accompaniments to bread in Turkey are butter, honey and cheese, a waiter at Rumi once explained to me when I asked why Istanbul Grill served olive oil and zatar while Rumi served butter and honey. Asked the same question, a waiter at Istanbul observed that olive oil and butter are both common in Turkey today, and that the traditional lines between the cultures are getting blurred. But my attempt to understand the knotty relationships between Middle Eastern cuisines ended up getting me all tangled up in partisan politics.

In that review of Turkish restaurants a year ago, I commented that Middle Eastern food is composed of regional delicacies that were first combined in the courts of the Turkish sultans in the days when the Ottoman Empire stretched from Asia to Europe. As a result, many believe that Turkish food is the mother of all Middle Eastern cuisine. We think of moussaka and baklava as Greek dishes, for instance, but the words themselves are Turkish. The article drew an angry response from members of the Houston Greek community.

Since then, I've come to realize that the cooking in this part of the world is so old, it isn't really accurate to call it Turkish. The Seljuk Turks were nomadic herdsmen of the Aral steppes who conquered ancient Anatolia -- as the area between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean was once known -- around 1000 AD, which makes them relative newcomers in that neck of the woods. They followed the Assyrians, Sumerians, Hittites, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Goths and Arabs in ruling Anatolia. And by the time the sheep-herding Turks got there with their butter and yogurt, the food was probably already pretty good.

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