Small package big Turkish taste

There’s a northwest strip mall kitty corner to James Fowler High School that’s the unlikely home of some of the city’s best Turkish and Mediterranean food. Sandwiched between a beauty salon and a billiard hall Istanbul Restaurant doesn’t look too promising at first glance.

Popping in for an evening takeout order owner and chef Necmettin Ozkan serves me a hot glass of tea with sugar cubes to sip as I peruse the menu.

Bathed in the oddly romantic orange light of the backlit food-court style feature board above the counter I’m suddenly sorry I left my gal at home and didn’t dine out. The couple across from me is definitely taking advantage of the setting holding hands and mooning over appetizers.

Istanbul Restaurant isn’t fancy. It’s two-thirds kitchen with a few tables draped in red-and-white checkered tablecloths . The walls are adorned with Turkish rugs and a painting of Ozkan wearing a warm grin. But the air is thick with the relaxing scent of cooking spices hinting that Istanbul’s ordinary location belies excellent culinary fare.

I make my order run out on an errand and return as my meal is being packaged on the front counter. Soon I’m home and the Mrs. and I are digging into a magnetically fragrant meal.

Our first appetizer is humus ($6.95) a standard Mediterranean starter. Garlicy flecked with chopped herbs and splashed with olive oil it has an underlying spicy heat. For dipping we have plenty of soft still-warm pita triangles brushed with olive oil and sprinkled with chopped herbs. It’s an impressively inviting start to a meal.

The koy salata or Turkish village salad ($6.95) is made with lettuce sliced onion parsley and shaved feta with a red dash of sumac but without any of the advertised olives. It’s a basic crisp green salad. As standards go it’s just that.

Barbury pilaki ($6.95) is an entree-sized appetizer made with red beans simmered in tomato and garlic sauce with carrots chopped red and green peppers and herbs. The plump red beans in a golden-orange sauce have a deep warm spiciness. It’s a hearty vegetarian dish that simply tastes like more.

Chunks of oven-baked seasoned chicken breast and artichoke hearts are tumbled with Istanbul’s house-made donair meat white rice red peppers and carrots in the firinda tavuk ($13.50). The flavours of tender finely ground lamb and succulent chicken are tied together by the generous artichoke chunks. The combination of tastes is satisfyingly balanced.

From a short list of necimskir pidesi I’ve chosen the kiymali kir pide ($10.95). Pide is often called Turkish pizza. On this one the ground meat is applied like cheese upon a thin crisp-edged and lightly browned dough. Cut in rectangular slices this Turkish pie is sprinkled with chopped onion tomato and parsley. Lemon wedges provide a squeeze of added flavour to these mild slices. The pide is as big as it is delicious so there will be welcomed leftovers.

The sutlac or rice pudding ($3.95) is made with a dusting of pistachio and cinnamon and it tastes distinctly of rose water. It’s beautifully cooked with a nice consistency — not too thin not too thick. By comparison the baklava ($3.95) seems to be having an off day. Its crisp pastry layers and moist honey-walnut filling are just great but the bottom layer is overcooked. Nonetheless the meal ends on a high note upon a meal of high notes.

In contrast with its nondescript locale Istanbul produces beautifully refined Turkish dishes and becomes yet another reason to adopt a Mediterranean diet.