Restaurant Reviews

Ancient Eggplant

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.

"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.

Ephesus Grill on Westheimer wisely sidesteps the ethnic debates by billing itself as an Anatolian restaurant. The zatar of the Arabs, the butter of the steppes, the rice of Asia, and the garbanzos and pistachios of the ancients are all equally Anatolian, whether or not they're Turkish.

At lunch on a balmy afternoon, my companion isn't interested in taking off her shoes and reclining on the pillows. She opts instead for one of the tables outside on the sidewalk. Ephesus is located in a strip center, so the scenery isn't exactly bucolic. But she's happy because this arrangement allows her to smoke without getting up.

There's a table card with a few lunch specials advertised. Each begins with a soup, today's being hearty chicken flavored with lemon juice. I get kofte, which the menu describes as lamb meatballs with a "heady seasoning." The spicy ground lamb balls are very juicy with a nice charcoal flavor. They're flattened and grilled, then served over a bed of rice and bulgur.

The smoker gets the Adana chicken sandwich, which is a round of pita bread stuffed with lettuce, tomato, herbs and a generous serving of seasoned ground chicken cooked on a skewer. Adana is a formerly Syrian part of Turkey that's famous for its inhabitants' love of peppers. Unfortunately, they're pulling their punches at Ephesus. For pepper-crazed Houstonians, the Adana chicken here isn't even sort of spicy.

For dessert, we try kunefe, a dessert of shredded wheat stuffed with cheese, covered with honey and lightly baked. It's served with crushed pistachios on top. My companion smokes another cigarette and drinks a tiny cup of thick Turkish coffee. I keep picking at the dessert. The flavor is reminiscent of baklava, the Greek dessert with the Turkish name. But wheat, honey and pistachios are among the oldest ingredients in the world. It's a wonderful dessert. It's also amazing to look back across the millennia and think about how old it might be. As the Turkish poet Abdulhak Sinasi once said. "Do not dismiss the dish saying that it is simply food. The blessed thing is an entire civilization in itself."

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Robb Walsh
Contact: Robb Walsh