Second-floor spaces are considered slow death by restaurateurs, who prefer a street-level place with plenty of windows. Inspired by an Istanbul neighborhood of the same name, Beyoglu turns undesirable real estate to its advantage, making an upstairs warren feel like a private club. The goofball proprietor works the room like a tummler in a Catskills resort, joking with patrons, turning a meal into a party. To further entice patrons, a beacon shines onto the sidewalk like the Bat Signal, searing the restaurant’s name into the concrete. Next to the entrance, a video screen alternates menus, enthusiastic reviews, and glossy color pix of food. Adding to the arsenal of techniques, a tout even hovers outside.
How many times have you eaten in a Turkish restaurant and loved the appetizers, but found the main courses, mainly kebabs, too dry or too boring? Beyoglu remedies this by eliminating the entrées, resulting in a menu of two dozen meze, priced mostly between $3.50 and $6.50 and mainly vegetarian. Many of these are already familiar, like a particularly good hummus laced with cumin and topped off with a dribble of olive oil, and a Greek salad that features bonus artichokes and stuffed grape leaves. Less appealing is kisir, a tabbouleh emphasizing damp cracked wheat that can’t cut the mustard, flavorwise, and a variation on steak tartare called cig kofte—blood-red boxcars of ground filet mignon that exhibit an unpleasant squishy texture. “Don’t miss” selections include boreks (crunchy pastry flutes oozing feta), uskumru lakerda (smoked and pickled mackerel served like sashimi), and ahtapot salatasi (octopus tentacles bathed in olive oil and wine vinegar).
I lied about there being no entrées. Contrary to concept, a single main course is offered—doner kebab ($12.50). More properly called Iskender kebab, this glorious gut-bomb overlays cubes of toasted bread with slices of mystery meat, doubly drenching them in yogurt and tomato sauce. It’s so filling, you might want to skip the appetizers.
Founded by a Jersey ex-cop, CROSBY CONNECTION (172 Crosby Street, 677-8444) rapidly became a favorite of Voice staffers when it opened last year. This take-out encampment features sandwiches and little else, dispensed under garden umbrellas and beside a snatch of suburban wooden fence, as the sandwich makers trade pleasantries with their lined-up clientele. No big surprises, other than a choice of excellent breads, fine cold cuts leaning toward the Italian, and mild innovations of the sort you might not even notice, like ricotta on a meatball hero, fresh basil leaves in unexpected places, and generous add-ons at no extra charge.
A nip here, a tuck there, and presto! The bar at Pico has been turned into PICO CAFÉ (349 Greenwich Street, 343-0700), demonstrating the same Portuguese influences without actually being Portuguese. Centerpiece of the limited menu is a wonderful suckling-pig sandwich, planks of skin alternating with meat and spinach inside a North African-style bread with a touch of sweetness (jam?). The spiced fries alongside are fab. There’s also a burger, oysters, a couple of salads, and a standout gazpacho—the best of the year, as far as I’m concerned—speckled with croutons and chunks of ripe summer tomato, laved with mint oil.
In addition to tacos and tortas in 20 permutations, former pizza parlor TACO AZTECA (75 Victory Boulevard, Staten Island, 718-273-6404) whips up big round sandwiches called cemitas. Hailing from Puebla and Tlaxcala in central Mexico, they’re made with pan de pulque, a sweet egg bread dotted with sesame seeds and leavened with cactus beer. Though they can be made with chicken or pork, I prefer milanesa—a pounded, crumbed, deep-fried beefsteak wadded on the bun and topped with white cheese, avocado, cilantro, onions, and red chiles that have the texture and sweetness of sun-dried tomatoes.