Review: Istanbul Cafe
Cincinnati really needs more food choices. I’m not exaggerating here. When the only cultural cuisines represented are a few authentic-ish Mexican places, a lot of Thai, even more sushi, the occasional Chinese restaurant and an entire block of Indian, there’s an issue– particularly in a city with so many diverse cultures represented (Somalia! Lebanon! Greece!). This is changing– Vietnamese, for example, is popular thanks to Pho Lang Thang– but not fast enough for my tastes.
A good friend and I had been promising to go out to dinner with each other for months, and we also both found ourselves invited to the Palomino Grand Re-Opening (it took us a while to figure out what changed– light fixtures, no fake fruit near the open kitchen, some upholstery) and decided to take advantage of us both being in the same place at the same time. She asked me if I’d been to “the restaurant briefly known as Turquoise”– I hadn’t. I’ve driven past it a lot, but had never seen anyone in it. It was certainly on my “to-try” list. So she insisted, and we went. I should have gone sooner– it turns out that this place is owned by the same folks who ran Cafe Istanbul as well as Cafe Mediterranean in Anderson– two places I really liked.
Istanbul Cafe does not have a liquor license, but what it does have is an array of fantastic Turkish food. We started off with an appetizer sampler. It changes daily; that day included hummus, baba ghanoush, stuffed grape leaves, ezme (a mix of vegetables and walnuts that is a touch spicy and my favorite thing on the plate) and tabbouleh, served with crisp pita. I could easily make a meal out of the appetizer platter (and maybe some borek, which is the same recipe as Cafe Mediterranean’s).
We split two entrees: I selected the Iskender Kebab, which is layers of pita, doner (sort of like the meat you get on a gyro), and a buttery, tomato-based sauce with a bit of feta. The effect is a bit like freeform lasagna– layered, a bit of cheese, and utterly addictive. Tomato and feta are born to go together, and pair them with crispy bits of meat and moistened pita? Heavenly.
The cabbage rolls were also excellent– stuffed with lamb, rice and a little mint and covered with tomato sauce, they’re a predictable classic and comforting in that familiarity.
For dessert, we tried the house specialty, kunefe. If you’re not familiar, it’s sort of like baklava and shredded wheat had a delicious, delicious baby: shredded phyllo, lots of honey, and nuts provide an interesting texture that is much lighter (and less sweet) than baklava. It was perfect with a tiny, not-too-sweet cup of Turkish coffee.
My guess is that this place is a bit lonely because it’s sort of off of the beaten path– not near the Aronoff, not on Fountain Square, not in the Gateway Quarter– but it’s very close to all of these things. They can get you in and out quickly before a show at the Aronoff or Taft, or you can linger (as we did) on a lazy Thursday night.
The owners are considering moving back to Anderson– and that would be a loss to downtown. Try this place for something a little different.