We're sitting in the dining room of my favorite Turkish restaurant and the off-menu mixed appetizer platter lands on the table with a thud.
If you wanted to be charitable, you'd call it a pile. Nameless purées and vegetable stews edge up against each other, propping up sticks of fried dough. I'm ready to dig in, but other folks at my table aren't so sure.
"What is this exactly? How are we supposed to eat it?"
The answer to the second question is one of the golden rules of good eating out: There's no one 'right' way to eat anything, so stop worrying, dig in, and let your tongue sort it out.
As for the first question: To the first-timer, Turkish food is full of unfamiliar names, but you already know everything that's on the plate. Yogurt. Eggplant. Tomatoes. Lamb. Loads of olive oil. These are ingredients we all know and love. The Turks just do it better.
Vegetable-rich, grill-friendly, gently-spiced-yet-full-flavored Turkish food has never built a rep in New York like Italian, Greek, or even Levantine cuisines (hello, falafel). But once you taste the extra depth and creaminess in a bowl of yogurty cacık, there's no going back to tzatziki. Few cultures have greater fluency with kebabs, and Turkish bread-baking is just as sophisticated as French or Italian.
The problem, I suspect, is a lack of celebrity endorsement and trendy gimmicks. Turkish cooking, with its focus on doing as little as possible to great ingredients, is the opposite of a gimmick, and American eaters aren't familiar with Turkey's celebrity chefs and culinary boosters. So let's take a minute to give Turkish food some overdue love by highlighting a few must-visit restaurants across New York.
In truth, the city's Turkish restaurants offer only a thin slice of the vast, regionally distinct food of Turkey. And too many mediocre ones that simply don't live up to the "cook great produce simply" mantra. That's why I'm excluding some popular places to focus on six stellar options (plus a bonus round) that get this vibrant cuisine right. And once you visit them, you won't want your kebabs cooked any other way.
Midtown East and the Upper East Side are home to one of the city's greatest concentrations of Turkish restaurants. Unfortunately, most of them aren't that stellar. The good news? The city's top Turkish destination is right there, a short walk from Grand Central. If you're going to eat Turkish food anywhere in New York, eat at Sip Sak.
The vegetable wizard and Soup Nazi-esque chef Orhan Yegen has a very specific idea of what Turkish cooking should be, namely his. This translates into lush, full-flavored mezze that don't need to tout farm names to tell you how tender and sweet the eggplant is in a tomatoey dish of patlıcan soslu, or how soft and creamy artichoke hearts and leeks can be when braised in olive oil and the lightest of vegetable broths. Mezze selections vary based on what's fresh—always a good sign—and though the menu doesn't specify it, you can order a dealer's choice of mixed mezze to start any meal. (In true Yegen tradition, the price isn't listed, but usually comes to around 12 bucks a person.)
Those mezze are a meal all on their own, but Sip Sak's meaty mains are just as wonderful as the vegetables. Adana kebabs, made of minced lamb or chicken blended with fresh red pepper and shaped around a skewer, are as juicy as burgers, with a clean hit of spice that deepens the flavor of the meat without overwhelming it. Chunks of braised lamb fall apart at mere prodding with a fork in hünkar beğendi, but never lapse into stringiness. They're served over a brilliantly smoky purée of eggplant. Lesser restaurants drown the eggplant in cream for this dish, but at Sip Sak the cooks coax a remarkable, almost berry-like sweetness out of the mash.
With top-notch produce, a bistro-like setting, and a Midtown address, Sip Sak's prices will set you back more than the other spots on this list. But they're worth it for a taste of Turkish cuisine as it should be.
You'll find another Turkish community in Midwood, Brooklyn, where Taci's Beyti (Tah-jee's Bay-tee) has been a local hot spot for 26 years. It's a more casual spot than Sip Sak, thanks to lower prices and diners who go there to party. The cooking's less refined than Sip Sak's, and, barring the exceptional eggplant dishes, the vegetable mezze won't make you swoon in quite the same way, but boy do the cooks here know how to treat lamb.
I'm talking about salty, gamy, resplendently fatty lamb; lamb for lamb-lovers. If that's you, place an order for iskender kebab right away. Thin shavings of lamb pick up some char, then get placed on a dish over hunks of butter-toasted pita doused in a thick layer of tangy yogurt. Some tangier tomato sauce—really just crushed tomatoes with salt heated until liquidy—adorns the whole mess. Where most Turkish cooking is clean-tasting, this is total fat kid food, and Taci's Beyti is the best place to get it.
Don't sleep on the lamb adana kebab either, or a hot appetizer of hummus topped with broiled basturma (Turkish-style air-dried beef charcuterie, like bresola). Turks by and large make wretched hummus, but Taci's breaks the trend with this superb creamy specimen.
This casual spot's a little farther south, right on the water in Sheepshead Bay, and while a nice view isn't enough to make a great restaurant, Liman's bay-side tables, more than anywhere else in New York, send me right back to lazy lunches overlooking the Bosphorus in Istanbul.
Liman also nails its mezze. Tomato-cucumber salad is fresh and crisp year-round. The ezme, a spicy tomato-based dip, doesn't let back down on the heat. And the cacık is as thick as sour cream. Grilled meat doesn't disappoint, but Liman's evirons will likely have you craving seafood. To that end, do not miss the hamsi, Turkey's take on breaded and fried anchovies. Fresh, pleasantly briny, and sweet, all they need is a hit of lemon for you to down them like so many french fries.
In Turkey, casual kebab houses are called ocakbasi, and like at a diner, you don't need a menu to order; when you walk in you're greeted with a showcase of the day's mezze and meaty items waiting to hit the grill.
This is the spirit of Mangal Kebab in Sunnyside, where yes, there is a menu, but no, pay it no mind. Order a plate of solid mixed mezze here: eggplant salad plus baba ghanoush, refreshing tomato-cucumber salad, tabbouleh, hummus, and herb-flecked white beans, then head straight to the meat. Whole chunks of meat tend to dry out on Mangal's grills, but the minced lamb and chicken adana kebabs are moist and pleasantly charred. Be sure to request some lemon wedges on the side; both the mezze and kebabs benefit enormously from a splash of acid.
Pay special attention to the soups and braises of the day. Tripe soup, a late-night cure-all in Turkey, is delightful here and not too stinky. And a lamb shank braised into collapsing submission is so lipsmacking you can put your Chapstick away for the rest of the day. Ignore the pide, though; Mangal, like everywhere else in New York, makes only disappointingly bland versions of these classic Turkish flatbreads.
Hazar Turkish Kebab
Another ocakbasi, this one in Bay Ridge takes a more inclusive approach to Middle Eastern food by adding items like shawarma and falafel. In truth, those are some of the best items to order here; the lamb shawarma makes a nice iskender and the lentil-shaped falafel are resoundingly crisp with whole spices that ring in your teeth. But a more Anatolia-centric dish of dense, creamy giant white beans paired with jazzy-sweet, olive-oily tomato sauce is pitch-perfect.
Kofte Piyaz isn't a restaurant explicitly devoted to lentil soup, but take a sip and you'll know right away that it's the pride of the kitchen.
The restaurant took up residence in an old American-style lunch counter, and it hasn't changed much of the decor. The menu, though, is all Turkey: the same tomato-cucumber salads we've been talking about all day plus all manner of grilled lamb items, including the namesake kofte (meatballs) that get grilled hot and fast, then stuffed into poofy pillows of bread for sandwiches.
But that lentil soup. Creamy but not heavy, earthy but full of sweet, vegetal character. It's a lentil soup worth traveling for, a statement I thought I'd never make in my career as a food writer, but here we are. Oh, and that little dusting of dried mint on top is essential (fresh wouldn't pack the same concentrated punch), so stir it in and lap this soup up fast.
Bonus Round: Get Yourself to Jersey
Some of the best Turkish food in New York isn't in New York. It's in immigrant-dense Paterson, NJ, and if you have access to a car, get yourself out there pronto.
What'll you find there? For starters, Taskin Bakery, a 24-hour wholesale operation (slogan: Hand Made Freshly!) that supplies many of New York's Turkish restaurants and groceries. So if you can get this stuff in the city, why head out to Jersey? Because Taskin is the only place that does simit, Turkey's ring-shaped, sesame-seeded breakfast bread, full justice. Sure, you could buy a bag and toast your simit (or any of Taskin's many carby wonders, equally well-made) for something good, and hey, I do that all the time. But a simit is just like a baguette—nothing compares to fresh from the oven.
Taskin also sells a range of pastries worth ordering, from almond paste croissants to savory olive numbers. But save room for the made-to-order gozleme, paper-thin dough cooked on a griddle and stuffed with the likes of spinach and fresh white cheese, then folded up so you can scarf it down with one hand. No one else in the area does gozleme as fresh and spot-on as this.
You'll also find a great lunch at nearby Toros, where there's an even greater lunch special of three courses for 12 bucks. And plenty of shopping opportunities at groceries to buy all the Turkish cheese, sausage, and dry goods that you can eat.
Yes, Jersey's a trip. But hey, it's a shorter one than a flight to Istanbul.