It was a Saturday morning just after eleven when we walked into the Turquoise Grill Brick Oven Bistro on Norfolk at Kirby. I glanced at the menu and asked for the deluxe Turkish breakfast with a sausage omelet. My friend Jay Francis, who doesn't eat eggs, wanted some breakfast too, so he asked our server for a suggestion.
The waiter introduced himself as "Jim," the restaurant's owner, and apologized that he'd just opened for the day and it would take him awhile to get our breakfast ready. I told him not to worry. I was having the brakes done on my car and had a couple of hours to kill. Jay had picked me up at the mechanic's shop and joined me for a late breakfast.
Maybe I shouldn't have mentioned I wasn't in a hurry, because Jim stood by our table for the next ten minutes and shot the shit with us. He was one of those charming eccentrics whom you can't help but like. You get the idea that the dining room of the restaurant is actually his living room, especially since his father was sitting in a chair by the window drinking tea and watching television the whole time we were there.
Yilmaz "Jim" Dokuyucu is featured in lots of newspaper articles on the walls of his place. He also told us how he'd demonstrated Turkish cooking on local television. Turkey was the culinary center of the world in the days when the kitchens of the Sultan's palace fed 10,000 people every day, he said. Chefs from Asia, Africa and Europe all came to Istanbul to contribute to the mother of all Middle Eastern cuisines.
The Turquoise Grill Brick Oven Bistro offers a couple of Turkish dishes, but it's mainly an office building snack bar that sells breakfast tacos and burgers and fries. So the speech sounded a tad grandiose. Thanks to the effusive and engaging owner, the Turquoise Grill is a lovably goofy place — but the Sultan's palace in Istanbul it ain't.
At long last, Jim got around to the subject of our breakfast beverages. I asked for hot tea. Jay made the mistake of asking for a Turkish coffee. You don't drink Turkish coffee before a meal — it's too strong and ruins the appetite, Jim clucked.
In the end, we ate what Jim brought us. We each got a cup of Turkish tea and a plate with butter and honey on it. Then he set a bread basket in the middle of our little wooden table. Two pieces of sesame seed-covered shepherd's bread, fresh from the 600-degree gas-fired brick oven, sat there and tortured us. It was too hot to handle, but it smelled heavenly.
When the seedy ovals finally cooled a little, we tore them open and smeared them alternately into the butter and the honey on the plate. The hunks of the steaming bread washed down with strong Turkish tea made for a transcendent breakfast experience.
Of course, my judgment may have been affected by the fact that I was delirious with hunger. Maybe the secret of the Turkish Grill's appeal is that by the time you get Jim to stop talking and go make you something to eat, anything tastes good.
We watched two Turkish soccer teams play a high-scoring match on the restaurant's television while we waited for the rest of our breakfast. My Turkish omelet was filled with slices of the beef sausage called soujuk, which I remember from the Bosnian restaurants I've reviewed. Personally, I like a juicy pork sausage for breakfast, but in keeping with Muslim dietary laws, there are no pork products at the Turkish Grill.
At Jim's suggestion, Jay got the Turkish sausage calzone known as a socuk pide. The crust was folded partway over the top of the soujuk sausage and cheese filling, so it looked more like a Danish pastry than an Italian half-moon-shaped calzone.
Both of our breakfasts were served with a garnish plate of feta cheese and fresh-cut cucumbers, tomatoes, red bell peppers and green onions with a handful of olives and a healthy drizzle of olive oil poured over top.
While we ate breakfast, Jim sat down at a nearby table with his father and two other people who seemed like family or old friends. They ate the same breakfast at the same time we did. It felt like a family gathering.
When we were finished, Jim took our plates away and brought us each a Turkish coffee and some baklava. It was a thoroughly enjoyable but not inexpensive morning. Our Turkish breakfast ended up costing us $16 apiece.
The word "turquoise" means "Turkish." The blue-green-colored stone originally came from Turkey, and there are several turquoise-colored walls in the cheerfully decorated 13-table Turquoise Grill. There's also an L-shaped counter in the main dining room, but it's not used for seating. Instead it's taken up with the cash register, the drink dispenser and other machinery, in keeping with the snack bar atmosphere.
On my second visit, four of us split a meze plate to start. The hummus was creamy, with plenty of tahini. The tabouli, which was made with a lot of fresh chopped parsley and mint and very little bulgar, was outstanding. The roasted eggplant in the baba ghanoush was hand-chopped rather than pureed in a blender, which gave the spread a coarse, rustic texture.
We also tried lamejun, the Turkish pizza. It's a round of dough baked with seasoned ground beef and no cheese, served with shredded lettuce, chopped red cabbage and lemon wedges on top. The dough isn't crisp, so the pennant of pizza flops around unless you fold it over. I tried a slice with some of the salad ingredients folded inside. My tablemates and I debated whether it tasted more like a hamburger pizza pocket or a nacho-flavored pizza. It wasn't bad, but next time I think I'll go with one of the traditional Italian versions.
The inegöl köfte sandwich, which was made with sausage-shaped Turkish meatballs on shepherd bread with lettuce, tomatoes and shredded onions, looked exactly like Bosnian cevapcici on lepinja bread (see "Balkan Barbecue," April 5). So instead of picking it up and eating it like a sandwich, I attempted to tear off pieces of the bread and wrap up the meatballs like you do with cevaps. That was a mistake. The bread was very tough, and it didn't tear apart easily. I made a mess of the thing on my plate and ended up eating it with a knife and fork. But it made a nice meatball salad.
The yellow lentil soup was excellent, and it tasted even better with a squeeze of lemon from the wedge that came beside it. But the very best thing I sampled at Turquoise Grill was the adana kebab plate. The kebabs were made with a spicy blend of ground beef and lamb and cooked on flat skewers. Two tubes of meat were served with lettuce, tomato and shaved red onions with very thin sheets of pita bread and yogurt sauce.
Judging by the menu, the only difference between lunch and dinner at the Turquoise Grill is that some of the dishes cost two dollars more at night. But Jim, who's also a caterer, cooks special dinners by request. He encouraged us to call in advance and order something spectacular, like a whole red snapper baked in salt.
Turquoise Grill isn't the best Turkish restaurant in Houston. But thanks to Jim's floor show, it is by far the most engaging office building snack bar in town.