Every time I’m in Nora visiting Half Price Books I drive by the Istanbul Café and say to myself, “I really should go there soon.” Well, yesterday I finally did.
When Jeff and I walked up to the Café I had no expectations and I think that was a good thing, especially after last week. The Café occupies the corner of a strip mall with no fewer than four restaurants in it including Oakley’s Bistro (a future review). It has a nice outdoor eating veranda in front that is well shaded. Just outside the door is a black board advertising the daily special and a stand with the appropriate menu for the appropriate time of day.
As we walked in, the first thing I noticed besides the avocado paint and the zebra wood woodwork, was all the tables were covered with white linen and had folded napkins tucked into the glasses in the center of each place setting. The plates were white china decorated with the restaurant’s name on the rims of the plates.
I felt distinctly underdressed in my brown Guinness T-shirt and jeans. I asked the hostess/waitress whose name I discovered was Katey if we were underdressed. She assured me that we were not. I was relieved as I had once been turned down for not wearing a tie at a French restaurant in Dallas which had received one star in the Dallas Times and I was very nicely dressed at that time.
We arrived a bit after the lunch hour rush and we had Katey’s undivided attention. She was very solicitous and extremely knowledgeable about the menu. Even when the early afternoon crowd started coming in she had plenty of time to keep up the conversation with us and told us much about the history of the restaurant and the composition of the dishes.
She informed us that the restaurant has been here for about eight years and the original owner retired about two years before and sold the place to the current owners, Semi and Mina Cinbat. We got to meet Mina at the end of our meal and she was very charming and invited us back to her immaculate kitchen for a look around.
The Istanbul Café has got to be one of the cleanest restaurants I have ever been in. Don’t believe me? Just walk into the bathrooms there. They are spotless, and nicely scented to boot. To keep the linen tablecloths white, they lay down a large piece of butcher paper that gets changed after every meal eaten. In between serving tables Katey busies herself with polishing the glasses and silverware. She informed us that Sima and Mina require the staff to polish both the glasses and the silverware.
I’m assigning extra props to the owners and staff for maintaining the cleanliness of the restaurant as well or better than many much more expensive restaurants I have visited.
A look at the lunch menu shows a nice variety of foods to please both the meat eater and the vegetarian. Of course since this is a Turkish restaurant the majority of the menu consists of various kebabs. For the vegetarian in the family there are soups, salads, most of the offerings on the appetizer card, a vegetarian cabbage roll, and a robust vegetarian stew or grilled veggies.
Faced with the large appetizer menu, Jeff and I ordered the small Appetizer Sampler plate followed by the Lunch Special which consisted of a choice of soup, salad or hummus and our choice of lunch portioned entrees. Jeff and I both had the Shepherd’s Salad to start. For the entrees Jeff ordered the Doner Kebab and I had the Adana Kebab. For desert I ordered the Baklava.
Along with the appetizer I ordered a glass of Ayran (a salty Turkish yoghourt drink). The appetizer combo consisted of small portions of Dolma (stuffed grape leaves), Hummus (pureed and seasoned chickpeas), Baba Ghanoush (roasted eggplant seasoned with dill herbs, mayonnaise and lemon), Tabouli (bulgur wheat salad), Ezme (Tomatoes, walnuts and parsley seasoned with pomegranate juice), and Fried Eggplant in tomato sauce served with pita bread straight from the oven.
The Ayran was fantastic and brought back some great memories of lunches at the open air flea market in Munich sipping Ayran and Turkish coffee while eating Doner Kebabs. The only difference is the Ayran isn’t as strong or as salty as I remember it. I suspect the recipe has been modified to suit the Midwestern palate. All the appetizers were over the top. The Hummus had a silky smooth texture and was seasoned just right. Jeff, who really doesn’t care for Hummus took a taste and for the first time since I’ve known him kept going back for more! If Jeff likes the Hummus, it must be delicious and in my opinion, it was! My favorites of the sampler were the Baba Ghanoush and the Fried Eggplant in tomato sauce. The Baba Ghanoush had a wonderful smoky flavor from the char and combined with the mild tartness from the dill and lemon it gave me goose bumps. I could have made a meal of that and the warm pita alone. As for the Fried Eggplant in tomato sauce, the meaty flavors of the sun dried tomatoes sent me to foodie Nirvana and we hadn’t even finished the first course!
The shepherd’s salad was superb. Fresh and colorful, the salad kept Jeff and I oohing and ahhing between mouthfuls. Mildly salty, crunchy and juicy, the combination of chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, green peppers, onions and feta made for a mouth pleasing combination we couldn’t stop eating until the last little piece was gone.
When the lunch portions of Adana Kebab and Doner (Gyros) Kebab were brought out, both Jeff and I were extremely happy to see that these were no skimpy little servings, nor were they overly large either. My Adana Kebab was a single nice sized kebab of nicely seasoned minced lamb. Jeff’s Doner consisted of well grilled shavings of Gyros meat piled neatly in a medium sized mound in the middle of his plate. The side dishes consisted of a nice mound of perfectly cooked basmati rice and sautéed green beans and carrots served al-dente.
After we finished our entrees, Katey brought us out some hot Ceylon tea in glasses. In the Middle-East, good etiquette requires serving your guests tea. It is a greeting of sorts, a show of friendliness. I added the traditional two cubes of sugar and sipped the tea slowly.
While we were enjoying our tea, Katey brought out the dessert menu. Everything on the card looked delightful. When I saw Baklava at the top of the list, I couldn’t help myself and ordered a portion. Like everything else we were served, the portion was just right. The three pieces of Baklava, moist and sauced in a light honey and rose water syrup was a little slice of sweet heaven that I got to enjoy all by myself. Because Jeff is on a low carb diet, I didn’t have to share and I was very happy about it.
The whole meal from start to finish was colorful, fresh, beautifully presented and prepared perfectly. I literally had goose bumps three or four times through out the meal. It was a real joy and I felt privileged to eat here.
If I have one criticism it would be the dolmades. I prefer the warm type with rice and lamb in the middle and this was served cold and had no meat. That being said, it was very tasty and I couldn’t fault it on anything because dolmades are often served cold without meat in the center.
I should mention that although this style of cuisine is classified Mediterranean, every country bordering the Mediterranean and Adriatic seas have their own regional versions on these dishes. A particular dish in the Balkans may have common roots with a dish by the same name in Syria, but they may have significant differences in ingredients, flavor and texture. So while you may like the way Dolmades or Falafel are made in one Mediterranean restaurant, you may not care for them in another and they may both be “authentic” depending on where the chef studied that particular style of cuisine.
The Juicy Bits
After last week’s review, it is great to be able to give a restaurant the highest rating we have to give. At the Istanbul Café, you cannot go wrong. The food is as fresh as possible, the flavors are spot on. This is the type of place you might take a date you want to impress; you’re significant other for a romantic dinner or anniversary, or just to have a special night out. But don’t let that keep you from going there any time you feel like having a great Turkish meal. And you can have a gourmet meal that won’t break the bank!
The Istanbul Café has just become my favorite Turkish restaurant.
In summary: The authentic food and flavors of the Istanbul Café took me back to my youthful years in Europe. That combined with the friendly service, cleanliness and uplifting atmosphere earns the Istanbul Café my highest rating. The food literally gave me goose bumps!
1450 West 86th Street
Indianapolis, Indiana 46260
Tel: (317) 876-9810
Hours: Sunday-Thursday (11:00 a.m. – 9:30 p.m.), Friday & Saturday (11:00 a.m. – 10:00 p.m.)