Of Turkey’s three largest cities, Istanbul certainly needs no introduction, and neither does Ankara, the capital and seat of government, in the heart of Anatolia. The bustling Aegean port of Izmir, however, remains more of an unknown quantity, except to those fortunate enough to have explored that beautiful and bountiful coastline.
It is hardly surprising that three of Tokyo’s best Turkish restaurants are named after those cities — they are, after all, obvious choices. More interestingly, though, each of them displays something of the character of their respective namesakes.
Istanbul, in the nighttime back streets of Shinjuku-Sanchome, is the oldest and best established, slick and a little impersonal, its decor crammed with photos and exotic baubles, making it easily accessible to first-time visitors. Ankara, up behind Mark City in Shibuya, is busy and serious, with little time for people unfamiliar with the territory. Izmir, the least known of the three, not only lies further from the mainstream — in Asagaya, out on the Chuo Line west from Shinjuku — it is also notably more cheerful and unselfconsciously modern.
The long, thin dining room has a clean, contemporary feel, with walls of sunny orange and Mediterranean blue. There is little of the usual tourist clutter — no curlicue tiles and filigree brass, nor a single hookah pipe to be seen. With small tables along one side and a counter running the length of the open kitchen on the other, the layout is simple and straightforward. You are there to eat, not to pretend you have flown to the banks of the Bosphorus.
One reason why it feels so friendly is because it’s a family business. Chef Suleyman Ozeri, a native of Izmir, is the man in charge of the glowing doner grill and the cooking stove, the heart and soul of the operation. His partner, Elif Gulseren Ballica, takes care of business at the other end of the counter. It is she who sends out the plates, keeps an eye on the tables and warmly greets customers in fluent Japanese as they arrive and leave. And one of the three floor staff is the chef’s brother, Satih Ozeri. Apart from the lone Japanese waiter, everyone is Turkish, and they make you feel very welcome.
Although the menu is not in English (and nor, yet, is their informative Web site) many of the Turkish names (in Roman letters, of course) are self-explanatory. If you are familiar with the standard dishes found at most Turkish eateries, you will know what to order anyway; if not, there are set meals (3,150 yen or 4,200 yen). Whichever way, the structure of your meal is likely to be much the same. Soup and meze (appetizers) to start; next a kebab or other meat dish; and then, to satisfy any residual hunger, rice and a simmered “stew,” or pide (stuffed oven breads much like calzone).
Eating there the other day, we opened our meal with corba, the soup of the day, a thick, warming potage of pureed brown lentils, generously perfumed with black pepper. That and a glass or two of beer set us up nicely for the karisik meze, a selection of their excellent homemade appetizers. These comprised a scoop of very good, smooth humus; another of patlican ezme, the green flesh of the eggplant, creamed and pureed; a small mound of tasty ispanak tarama, coarsely chopped spinach with yogurt; and a scoop of mildly zesty cooked vegetables, acili ezme (think a spicy version of ratatouille). All were delectable, though our favorite, by a nose, was the ispanak.
Normally the plate would also have included a slice or two of beyaz peynir (that white, feta-like cheese that goes so well with a glass of anise-flavored raki) and perhaps some olives. But Elif was willing to make some substitutions, so we asked to sample the dolma instead. They make two kinds — tomato (domates) and green bell pepper (biber) — each stuffed and cooked with a pilaf mixture that included plenty of pine nuts and parsley mixed into al dente rice with the gentle tang of lemon.
Suleyman’s first calling was as a bread and pastry chef, and you can tell by the superior quality of his homemade bread (ekmek). It is firm and substantial, not the usual puffy rolls found elsewhere. Even better is his version of lahmacun, the original Turkish “pizza.” The delicate thin crust comes piping hot straight from the oven, spread with a thin layer of minced lamb mixed with finely chopped onion and spices, and cut into quarters. You drizzle it with juice from a wedge of lemon, roll it up with a slice or two of fresh tomato and some rocket greens, then eat it (with your right hand, of course). It was outstanding.
It was time for some meat. Adana kebabs — long thin patties of minced mutton mixed with spices and herbs and grilled on skewers — are always a favorite of ours, as long as the mix doesn’t have too much salt added: Suleyman makes his far less salty than we have had elsewhere in town. His doner kebab, though, was faultless. Carved in shreds directly from the spit and served on buttery rice, the beef has been cooked slowly till it is dark and tender, but still hinting of its savory marinade.
By this time we had only enough room to share a dessert between us. We had been looking forward to sampling Suleyman’s baklava, but it was sold out. We closed instead with a bowl of smooth, creamy, baked rice pudding chilled from the fridge, along with small glasses of piping hot chai, served hot and black and bittersweet.
Good food at honest prices, a personal touch and a true sense of hospitality. What more reason do you need to venture out along the Chuo Line? Well here’s another: There is no belly dancing floorshow (thankfully), but occasionally they do host performances of Turkey’s classical music on those beguiling traditional instruments, saz and ney.
Izmir has been in Asagaya for over two years (its first incarnation was in Itabashi), and it has built up a strong following, not just from the immediate Chuo Line catchment area but also drawing fans of Turkish food from far afield. Be sure to book before you go.
Another side of Turkey
It is one of those enduring mysteries: How come we are blessed with so many fine Turkish restaurants, when the similar and neighboring foods of Lebanon and Greece remain so woefully under-represented in Japan? Not that we’re complaining: At its best, the cuisine of Turkey has a complexity and subtlety of flavor that puts it up there with the finest in the world.
Here in Tokyo, though, the menus at most of our Turkish restaurants do not reflect the refined recipes developed for the sultans and grand viziers of the Ottoman empire. Instead, they cleave to the tried-and-true middle ground of the cuisine, with results that are satisfying and affordable but also quite predictable.
One of the few places that have tried to raise the bar, in terms of quality and refinement, is Harem, in Gaienmae (reviewed in these pages exactly four years ago). With its chic decor and stylish furniture, it brought a level of sophistication not evident at the regular mom ‘n’ pop Turkish eateries elsewhere around town. Sadly, it will be closing down at the end of this month, and although they hope to reopen later this year, the location hasn’t been decided yet. That leaves us just a couple of weeks to savor their excellent meze, imam bayildi eggplant, and hunkar gebendi (“His Majesty’s favorite”) lamb.