Hot flatbread in one hand, knife in the other, I am poised to attack. But I hesitate, momentarily overwhelmed by the seductive excess before me. When you order the small appetizer plate at Empire Turkish Grill, you are entitled to five selections from the appetizer menu. We have chosen a voluptuous pink caviar spread called tarama; an exotic paste of blood-red chopped tomato, vegetable and walnut called ezme; the familiar creamy mashed eggplant called baba ghanoush; pale, smooth and lemony hummus; and a swirl of dark sautéed spinach veiled in white yogurt sauce.
The mezeler (plural of meze, Turkish for "appetizer") are mesmerizing, and there are at least two other alluring appetizers we had to pass over: The thick white yogurt curd called lebni is like a gooey cottage cheese mixed with herbs and walnuts, and imam bayildi ("the imam fainted") is a wonderfully soft eggplant stuffed with caramelized cooked onions, roasted garlic and long-cooked tomatoes that is served cold.
"Why did the prayer leader faint?" I ask the waitress.
Empire Turkish Grill
12448 Memorial Drive
713-827-7475. Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily.
Small appetizer plate: $9
Imam bayildi: $5
Iskender kebab: $9.95
Chicken in garlic cream: $9.75
Stuffed cabbage: $9
"Because he was so stuffed," she answers. (Sounds like a bowdlerized version of the story to me.)
There are a few watercolors of Turkish city scenes on the peach-colored walls, but overall, the restaurant looks like a tea room. And much of the clientele matches the decor. Despite the little old lady ambience, the enormous selection of mezeler, salads and interesting main dishes gives the new Empire Turkish Grill a clear advantage over the other two Turkish restaurants in town.
A new Turkish restaurant called Rumi (6106 Westheimer, 713-978-7864) is decorated with fabric covering the walls and ceiling so it looks like you're in a giant tent. Unfortunately the food is not nearly as intriguing as the interior design. There, flatbread slices were brought to our table with butter, cheese and honey, but the bread was stale and cold. A mixed grill of chicken, lamb and gyro kabobs over bulgur was accompanied by little more than sliced tomatoes. Without any bread or sauce, the underseasoned meats were boring and dry. The eggplant kabob, a combination of a few slices of grilled eggplant and some grilled ground meat, was the best thing I sampled at Rumi. But you can get a much better version of eggplant kabob at the old standby of Houston Turkish restaurants, Istanbul Grill (5613 Morningside, 713-526-2800) in Rice Village. There, slices of baby eggplant and rounds of ground meat are alternated on a skewer. The creamy eggplant makes a stunning sauce for the slightly dry but nicely seasoned ground meat. Istanbul Grill also has the best flatbread of the three restaurants. The crisp breads are made on the premises and served hot with plenty of herbed olive oil.
I got into an argument with the Turkish waiter at Istanbul about the herb blend called zatar, which is added to the olive oil. I thought it consisted mostly of the tart herb sumac. He said no, zatar is mostly dried thyme. Turns out we were both right: Zatar is a blend of sumac and thyme, with sesame, hyssop and oregano sometimes added. Whatever it is, I said, zatar isn't really Turkish -- it's Arabic. Butter, cheese and honey, the offerings at Rumi, are the traditional bread spreads in most of Turkey. But it's not easy to draw the line between what's Turkish and what isn't.
Iraq and the other Arab states were once part of the Ottoman Empire, as were Yugoslavia, Greece, Persia, Iran, most of North Africa and parts of Russia. Turkey is all that's left of the empire that ruled parts of three continents for 600 years, until it was defeated by the Allies in World War I. Today's problems in the Balkans and the Middle East are largely rooted in the way the former Ottoman lands were divided after the war.
All of this explains a lot about Middle Eastern food. Europeans are very nationalistic about their cuisines; there's no mistaking German food for Italian. Lebanese, Turkish and Greek foods, on the other hand, all seem to blend together. It makes sense when you consider that until the 1920s, these countries were all ruled by the same sultans.
Since my altercation with the waiter, I've come to realize that saying that zatar isn't Turkish might be construed as a diplomatic faux pas in today's hypersensitive geopolitical climate. How you characterize the Turkish influence on world cuisine depends on how you feel about Turkey. And feelings about Turkey are running high at the moment.
History is written by the winners, and the Allies haven't been kind to the Turks. For one thing, they've been written out of food history. "The Ottoman Turks were a warrior nation invading other peoples' lands, and they contributed practically nothing (perhaps with the exception of Turkish coffee) to the development of culinary arts," say the foreign affairs experts at kitchenproject.com.
But in Washington, Turkey is the flavor of the week. First, because they've got a really neat model of secular democracy in a Muslim country. Second, because they've allied themselves with our pals in Israel. And last but not least, because their military bases made such a swell launchpad last time we invaded Iraq -- and, well, who knows when that might happen again.
So maybe the sudden arrival of two new Turkish restaurants to George Bush's hometown shouldn't come as a surprise. I don't think Turks are flocking to Houston. It's just that these places probably would have called themselves Mediterranean restaurants a few years ago. Who knows? Now that Turkey is cool, maybe lots of Middle Eastern restaurants in Houston will suddenly reveal that they were Turkish all along. One thing's for sure, a revival of Turkish pride is going to force us to reconsider the culinary history of the Middle East.
The Turks didn't invent things so much as they took ingredients and dishes from various parts of their empire and refined them, Turkish food experts explain. Coffee actually came from Yemen, but it was Turkey that gave the world its coffee-drinking traditions. Baklava came from the Assyrians and the Armenians, but it reached its pinnacle in the palaces of the sultans.
Eventually, the luxurious fare of wealthy Turks trickled down to the common people throughout the empire. The world's first pastry shops, for instance, catered to the middle class in Constantinople and other provincial capitals.
So it can be argued that Turkish food is actually the mother of all Middle Eastern cuisines. According to this view, the cooking styles of former Ottoman countries are just local variations on Turkish food. ("Greek food is Turkish food cooked badly" is another way this sentiment is sometimes expressed.) We think of moussaka and baklava as Greek because they were brought to America by Greek immigrants, but the words themselves are Turkish.
So while the mezeler plate at Empire Turkish Grill represents the foods of many regions, it was the Turkish sultans who had the luxury of putting all these things together. In cosmopolitan Constantinople, Asian eggplant and okra, Persian spinach and caviar, Arabic hummus and tabbouleh, and all the delicacies of the Ottoman Empire could be assembled on one plate.
As diverse as this cuisine's origins are, Turkish and Middle Eastern entrées almost always consist of skewer-cooked meats over rice. The problem is the meats often taste dry, and there's seldom any sauce. The eggplant kabob at both Rumi and Istanbul Grill offers one remedy. But at Empire Turkish Grill, I found far more imaginative solutions.
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Most of the grilled kabobs here are also available in the form of a "yogurt grill." Seasoned bread cubes are covered with yogurt and then topped with the kabob meat. I tried the ground lamb gyro meat over the yogurt and bread with tomato sauce on top, a combination known as iskender kebab. The addition of the two sauces turned the slices of zesty gyro meat into an excellent main course.
Also in the kabob section of the menu, Empire offers outstanding Turkish lamb chops, which are marinated so that they stay tender and moist despite being cooked well done.
Another way around the dry kabobs is to go for casserole-type dishes. But these can be hit-or-miss. Has tuvuk, for instance, a stew of chicken chunks in cream and garlic sauce, was a little too bland for my taste. The lahana dolmasi, cabbage leaves stuffed with ground beef, rice and herbs, were a pleasant shock, however. Except for the yogurt sauce on the side, they tasted just like the stuffed cabbages my Ruthenian grandma used to make. I guess that makes sense since the Ottoman Empire also included parts of Ukraine.
Maybe it's time to forgive and forget whatever we had against the Ottoman Empire. Sure, they were a little overbearing in the military department for a few hundred years, but hey, they can really cook stuffed cabbage.