Istanbul Café sits on a rather glum office-block stretch of 57th Street, but the eatery feels somehow apart. The mix of diners reminds me of the crowd you might see in JFK International Airport just before the evening flights go out. One night, our fellow eaters ranged from mothers in colorful headscarves, barely dressed women in black dresses and thigh-high boots, and polished uptowners discussing the merits of their dogs and marble countertops. All of them were happily munching on family-style arrays of bright salads, lamb every which way, and Turkish desserts.
Istanbul Café took over the old Le Biarritz space about a year ago, and transformed the room into a carpeted, blue-and-white-tiled hideout, filled with mini palm trees, glass lamps, stodgy oil paintings, low tables, and chairs upholstered with colorful kilim tapestry. If it looks a bit like a home-goods shop, that’s because it is: One of the owners is an importer, and many of the artworks and furnishings are for sale, most of them very expensive. But while the food is not exactly cheap—entrées average $15—it is relatively affordable, and a boon to that part of midtown.
First, go for the appetizer salads—familiar vegetarian delicacies like hummus, smoked eggplant purée, and lebni, but all of them uncommonly vibrant and bright. In fact, you can easily make a meal of these alone, with a basket of warm pita for dipping. A chopped-tomato concoction, often known as Turkish salad, seems a work of alchemy. Where did they get these juicy, flavorful tomatoes this time of year? Mixed with a rich mash of red-pepper paste and walnuts, along with plenty of garlic and onions, the salad practically jumps with tartness and sweetness. That smoked eggplant whizzed with garlic and roasted red pepper tastes as good as barbecue, and stuffed grape leaves harbor raisins, pine nuts, and onions to sweet, aromatic effect. You can get a small platter composed of your choice of these dishes for $12.95.
Stuffed Turkish pies are fashioned into rounds known as rose boreks, although they resemble cinnamon rolls more than flowers. One night, we ordered a spinach-and-feta version to share and ended up scrabbling for the last bites. It arrives hot, browned on the top, and, when torn in half, reveals airy pastry, earthy greens hiding inside crevices. The boreks can also be had filled with cheese or potatoes.
And speaking of tubers, Istanbul Café serves the mother of all baked potatoes, the kumpir. A popular Turkish fast food, it’s essentially a twice-baked potato seemingly designed for sumo wrestlers—the insides scooped out and puréed with sheep’s-milk cheese and butter, packed back into the jacket, then topped with various ingredients. Here, as in Istanbul, you can get your kumpir with red cabbage, pickles, sliced olives, corn, Russian salad, and a hot-dog-like sliced beef sausage. Then the treat gets copious squirts of ketchup and mayonnaise, which slide together into a pink sludge. It’s a total monstrosity and completely delicious, like the Middle East’s answer to poutine.
With such a range of excellent vegetarian options (you can get the kumpir without the sausage), there’s no imperative to order meat at Istanbul Café, especially since the fleshy dishes cost substantially more. But the café has a way with lamb, the musky meat ground into kofte meatballs, grilled as doner kebab, and sluiced with yogurt and garlic.
That last preparation, called a yogurt kebab, could be thought of as a Turkish casserole: layers of chopped pita bread, garlicky yogurt, and doner kebab, the marvelously tender, flavorful lamb compressed onto a rotating spit and grilled, similar to gyro. That’s one flavorful mess. The Iskender kabob—a Northwestern Turkish dish named after its 19th-century inventor—is similar, but adds a simple tomato sauce. Best of all the lamb preparations, though, is the Ali Nazik, a dish from the south central province of Gaziantep. It takes that smoked eggplant purée and mixes it with thick yogurt, and tops it off with bite-size chunks of grilled lamb. You can taste the charcoal fire in both the eggplant and the meat.
But beef shows up in another one of the café’s standouts: meatball-stuffed manti. The tiny dumplings are delicate and slippery, harboring a raisin-size dab of spiced beef inside, and dressed with dill-flavored yogurt.
There’s no beer or wine, likely for religious reasons, but most people are drinking copious amounts of tea, either black or mint. If you crave something sweet to drink, check out the salep—a frothy, warm milk beverage spiced with cinnamon. Its viscous, starchy consistency comes from salep flour, produced by grinding the dried roots of certain lilies.
You’ll also notice that not one of your fellow eaters is skipping dessert. Istanbul Café is as much a bakery as it is a restaurant. A large display case holds court in the middle of the room, showing off a mind-bending array of homemade Turkish sweets. There are about 19 varieties,including four kinds of pudding; phyllo dough molded into elaborate, nut-filled shapes; orange-scented semolina cake; sticky shredded-wheat confections; and fried dough balls drenched in syrup. One night, we ate incredibly delicious almond semolina dumplings, a slice of baked shredded wheat slippery with honey, and a milky pudding with a caramelized base that was like a cross between flan and dulce de leche. We left flying high on sugar and good tea, ready to board a plane to Turkey.