It’s a rare restaurant that undergoes such a trial and passes with flying colors. On a recent Sunday afternoon, 10 of us charged into Istanbul—a new Turkish restaurant in Rego Park—demanding to be fed in a timely fashion. Hunkering down at a long table in the rear, we noted that the decor is pure carryout in the front, where the blinding fluorescent light rivals the sun. The rear is more elegant, sparingly decorated with the occasional rug and beaten-copper serving platter, but the light is still too bright, especially for those who intend to drink any quantity of Turkish Efes beer ($3.50). As we contemplated our order, a chef in a billowy white outfit emerged from the kitchen wagging a long, silver fish by the tail. Of course, we had to have that fish.
It turned out to be a branzino (seasonal price, $18), which was rapidly ferried to the gas grill in the front window. As we waited for our fish, we attacked the meze, or small appetizing dishes. Anatolians are eggplant crazy, and the menu lists four treatments of the purple vegetable. There’s a baba ghanoush (patlican ezmesi) about average in smokiness, and another dip (patlican salatasi) that deducts the tahini from the baba and adds enough raw garlic and olive oil to leave your lips burning and glistening. A further pair of appetizers features slices of fried eggplant, one gobbed with thickened yogurt, the other awash in a thin and spicy tomato sauce. All eggplant concoctions are $4, and all come with a warm round homemade loaf.
If you’re not an eggplant fan, other starters beckon. That Sunday afternoon, we enjoyed cumin-dusted cubes of calf’s liver ($7), feta-filled pastry tubes poetically known as fingers of Fatima ($6), and a spicy dip of pureed red peppers and finely diced veggies called acili ezme, which sounds like an incurable teenage skin disease. The apps arrived one or two at a time so we could properly enjoy them. Pacing is a major problem in many restaurants, but it’s one that’s been solved at Istanbul. Of course, 90 percent of the appetizers are already prepared, requiring the chef to do no more than wield a large spoon and a small plate.
The carnivores among you are probably perched on the edge of your seats waiting to hear about the meaty kebabs that make up the entrée half of Turkish menus. As usual, the adana kebab ($10.99) rocks hardest, an undulating column of chopped lamb mixed with chiles, with enough fat to leave it succulent and smelling of the pasture. Sadly, the lamb doner kebab (a/k/a shawarma or gyro) is often on the dry side. This can be remedied by ordering iskender kebab, which downloads the doner onto a bed of toasted pide bread and bombs it with butter, garlic, yogurt, and tomato sauce. This gut bomb was invented at a restaurant called Iskender in the town of Bursa. You can induce the staff at Istanbul to treat any kebab in this fashion, and the adana is particularly good this way.
You’ll need a cup of Turkish coffee to restore your biochemical equilibrium after so much grease and yogurt. And no, you’re not supposed to drink the crud that accumulates at the bottom of the tiny cup.