Beautiful and flavorful Turkish fare in an unexpected location

June 17, 2014

For decades, the unassuming shopping plaza on Ithaca's northside has housed some of the area's fanciest and most interesting restaurants, and the tradition continues with Istanbul Turkish Kitchen. This classy eatery oddly nestled between the bowling alley and the DMV blends beautiful presentation with flavorful preparation of a variety of Mediterranean dishes. We're actually used to having nice restaurants in this spot; it previously held such favorites as Dijon Bistro, Mira Mediterranean Bistro, and Abby's.

Karisik Meze, an assortment of small items, makes a good appetizer.Karisik Meze, an assortment of small items, makes a good appetizer.As in many cultures around the Mediterranean and Middle East, Turkish cuisine specializes in small dishes called meze, a Turkish word meaning a taste, or a snack. Meze are like the tapas of Spanish tradition, small plates rather than appetizers, but since the karisik meze plate here is ready quickly, it does make a good appetizer, as it whets the appetite for the larger plates. The assortment at Istanbul features triangles of fresh feta cheese, stuffed grape leaves, yogurt, bulgur salad, and roasted eggplant. We also tried the sigara borek, literally "cigarette pastries," fried phyllo dough stuffed with feta cheese, and the mucver, crisp zucchini pancakes.

As tasty as it is colorful, the veggie kebab is one way to stay vegan at Istanbul.As tasty as it is colorful, the veggie kebab is one way to stay vegan at Istanbul.The meal comes with chunks of lovely, crusty bread and excellent extra virgin olive oil for dipping, and between the bread and the small plates, it might be tempting to stop there. We suggest moving on to the larger dishes, though, such as the kebabs or even the whole grilled fish, selected seasonally. The veggie kebab offers an opportunity to stay on the vegetarian side of Mediterranean fare, even vegan, without feeling left out. The gorgeous array of grilled vegetables are as crisp as they are colorful.

Yaprak doner kebab, an extra-spicy version of the sliced lamb and beef dish.Yaprak doner kebab, an extra-spicy version of the sliced lamb and beef dish.Turkish cuisine does magnificent things with roasted and grilled meats, though, and there are quite a variety of kebabs here, mostly featuring lamb, beef, or both. Many of the descriptions sound similar, but the range from ground beef and lamb formed into a thin loaf and grilled on a skewer (Adana kebab), to sliced grilled lamb and beef served with a tangy tomato sauce (Iskender kebab), is huge. Take a moment to ask questions about the varieties that appeal to you.

Our favorite so far is the Hunkar Begendi, a traditional dish of spiced lamb cubes and smoked eggplant chunks whose name means "Sultan's Delight," or, literally, "the Sultan liked it." It's rich and spicy, and we liked it, too.

It's not a big cup of coffee, but that's probably just as well.It's not a big cup of coffee, but that's probably just as well.Relax at the end of your meal with the wonderful pistachio baklava, made by hand the old-fashioned way, with imported Turkish honey, no less, and a cup of Turkish coffee. This strong, rich, yet smooth brew is served in tiny, ornate cups, as is the Turkish tea. Peach nectar is also available, and it's worth noting that they have no liquor license yet, and so they can't serve beer or wine.

Plan on spending $15 to $25 per person on a meal. Find Istanbul Turkish Kitchen at 311 Third Street on Ithaca's northside or at istanbulithaca.com, or call 607-345-3333 and tell them you heard about them here.

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