Istanbul Grill & Deli is an outpost of Turkey nestled between monuments of urban yuppieness in the Rice Village. Inside the tiny six-table restaurant, the TV glows with scenes from Turkish broadcasts. At tables outside the restaurant, groups of young Turks happily demolish large platters of food or sit quietly sipping Turkish coffee, watching the scene. Men are on one side, women on the other.
The restaurant offers not just a view of Turkish culture, but a fine introduction to Turkish cuisine. As Zubeyir Dundar, the friendly owner, explains, Turkish (or Anatolian) cuisine is a mixture of Persian, Greek and Arabic cooking styles.
The Middle Eastern influence is seen in the abundance of appetizers, including old familiars such as hummus or tabbouleh, but also more unusual dishes. Ezme ($2.99) is a delicious mixture of pureed scallions, tomatoes, hot red peppers and walnuts, mixed with olive oil and lemon juice. It's wonderful spread on pide bread, a beautiful golden leavened bread, not to be confused with the stuff of pita pockets.
Iman bayildi ($2.49), a cold appetizer, translates as "Imam's delight" or, more poetically, "the Imam fainted." Swooning is a natural reaction to such a luscious dish: Roasted eggplant, marinated in olive oil and lemon juice, is stuffed with a delightful mixture of tomato, parsley, bell pepper, onion, raisins and pine nuts. One bite and you'll understand the Imam.
But skip another cold appetizer, the zaaytinyali taze fasulye, green beans with onion and tomato, tossed with olive oil ($2.99). The beans were disconcertingly similar to those found in a can. Luckily, this lapse proved to be the exception to the rule; everything else tasted extremely fresh.
Lahmacum ($2.49), a hot appetizer, is a traditional dish. Chopped lamb, tomato, parsley, green peppers and garlic are sandwiched between rounds of hand-rolled dough and baked in the brick oven right behind the counter. Consider it a quesadilla, Turkish-style.
Then there's the arnavut cigeri, pan-fried cubes of seasoned liver, served with an onion-and-parsley salad. At first glance, the cubes appear a bit dry, but a squirt of lemon readily brings them to life -- a treat for liver lovers, but not enough to convert disbelievers.
You can make a meal solely of an assortment of appetizers, but the entrees are awfully good. Iskender kebab ($9.99), also known as Alexander the Great's kebab, begins with doner, the alternating layers of lamb and beef rotating on a vertical spit of the sort you often see in Turkish and Middle Eastern restaurants. The thinly sliced meat rests on a bed of cubed, butter-roasted pide bread, covered with a lovely spiced tomato sauce and served with homemade yogurt. The crunchy, buttery bread cubes, the tender roasted meat, and the tomato sauce and yogurt somehow equal more than the sum of their impressive parts, forming a dish that should not be missed.
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The Taste of Istanbul Grill ($11.99) allows you to sample a wide variety of good kebabs: chicken and beef shish kebabs, as well as kofte kebabs and lamb-and-chicken adana kebabs (those last two are seasoned ground-meat mixtures, formed around skewers and grilled).
The karadeniz pide ($6.99) resembles an open-faced calzone: The pide dough is rolled into a twist and baked; you choose toppings to be added later. Our waitress recommended mozzarella and Turkish sausage, a good choice.
Turks are known for their sweet tooth, and Istanbul Grill does not skimp on desserts. You have a choice of four: baklava (89 cents a piece); sekerpare, or honey cake (99 cents a piece); kadayif, a walnut mixture topped with crispy, sweet shredded wheat and syrup ($1.99); and firin sutlac, a baked rice pudding ($2.49). The rice pudding stood out -- an extraordinarily creamy pudding hid underneath the brown, slightly chewy top -- but all the desserts were good, in the sweet-sweet-sweet manner of Middle Eastern desserts. And all go well with a cup of dark Turkish coffee.
Istanbul Grill & Deli, 5613 Morningside, (713)526-2800.