Not Con-stantinople

Cafe Istanbul
525 Valencia (at 16th Street), 863-8854. Open Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday noon to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 2 a.m. The restaurant is wheelchair accessible. Parking: easy weekdays, difficult weekends; city garage at 16th and Hoff. Muni via the 22 Fillmore, 26 Valencia, and 33 Ashbury; Mission Street lines and BART one block away. Sound level: moderate.

590 Valencia (at 17th Street), 621-6213. Open Tuesday through Sunday 5 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday until 2 a.m. No reservations after 8 p.m., reservations strongly recommended. The restaurant is not wheelchair accessible. Parking and Muni: same as Istanbul. Sound level: loud to deafening.

Catching sight of a new eatery named Istanbul, I levitated about a foot into the air, thinking that we finally had a Turkish restaurant in town. If you've never tried Turkish food -- oh, you just can't know. Turkey's in Asia Minor, not the Middle East, with its own language (unrelated to Arabic) and an equally distinct culinary idiom. The palace kitchens of the mighty Ottoman sultans developed a rich, playful cuisine, incorporating and elaborating the dishes of all the neighboring countries they'd conquered.

A whimsical sultan might like Istanbul's fanciful decor, its details variously reminiscent of Ya Ya, Straits, and La Folie: Moorish arches in light blue and cream define the room, and faux balconies hang near the ceiling with baby clothes tossed over their railings. Fake Moorish windows cast orange and yellow highlights, shining behind intricate iron grills, and puffs of clouds float in a painted sky. You can sit on ottomans in small raised rooms or at plain tables and chairs in the main dining room.

One glance at the menu, though, tells you you're not in Constantinople after all. The appetizers are called mazas, Arabic for the Turkish meze, and these choices ($3-6 as individual dishes) mainly echo the deli cases of Palestinian mom and pop groceries. I'd hoped for cheese bourek, "ladies' thighs" (meatballs) and "virgins' breasts" (pastry), but the entrees are primarily salads and sandwiches, including falafel, seitan, and an "Istanbul Famous Turkish Burger," evidently a Syrian beef kufta flattened to a patty and served on a bun.

The "Turkish Mix" ($9) meze platter centers on Imam Bayildi, which means "the priest fainted." According to legend, he fainted either from pleasure or from shock at seeing how much olive oil his cook had squandered on the dish. Istanbul's version, with a halved Asian eggplant topped with chopped onions, garlic, tomatoes, and bell peppers, was tasty but nothing to swoon over. Grape-leaf dolmas were filled pleasantly but plainly with herbed rice, minus the typical Turkish grace notes of pine nuts and currants. An enjoyable salad was made of chopped cucumbers in yogurt, flavored with garlic, mint, and a dusting of summac. Three entree-size versions of bourek (all $8), Turkish phyllo "pies," offer stuffings of chicken, seitan, or a Macedonian "Gypsy" beef filling. The menu indicates ground beef in the latter, but inside the somewhat thick, soggy shell, we rejoiced to find tiny chunks of spice-rubbed grilled sirloin instead, mingled with multicolored diced bell peppers and parsley. Alongside, a "shepherd salad" proved a true Turkish delight with finely chopped tomato, red onion, cucumber, green pepper, and parsley in a lemony dressing.

Alas, that's all the Turkey that Istanbul talks. The "Mideastern Mix" ($10) of standard Arab-world appetizers had two eggplant dips (with yogurt/sesame paste, and tomatoes/onions), plus feta, hummus, and tabbouleh, all flavorful but unexceptional. Weird, chewy falafel were flattened and fried nearly burnt.

As the evening lengthened, the cafe's population grew, despite nearby competition from bustling Amira, voted "best first date" restaurant in the Weekly's most recent annual poll. After dinner, we strolled over to the latter to compare menus, and discovered that Amira isn't Istanbul's rival, but its parent. An aloof belly dancer gyrated on a raised platform separating twin dining rooms, a small live band throbbed out the rhythm, and a dozen hopeful patrons dressed in date-duds were begging admittance. "You have no reservation?" the hostess asked each group. "Why don't you go across the street to Istanbul? We'll call you there if we have a cancellation." She sent away three couples and admitted two.

A sign in the window reads, "Reservations Recommended"; another warns, "$1 cover per person on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, dinner is required." Evidently, the road to Amira is pitted with many potholes. But the axle-breaker is: The restaurant accepts no phone reservations for sittings after 8 p.m. How, then, could there be "cancellations" at 8:45?

We snuck in late one night for appetizers, and subsequently reserved dinner for 7:45 on a quiet weeknight (with canned music but no band). We chose a seat on the dais next to the front window, a sort of no-belly-dance zone (which didn't stop the dancer from shimmying our way to collect tips). As in the dining rooms, seating is on banquettes and ottomans at round, filigreed tray-tables of bantamweight metal. The decor is terrific, though: With all the Egyptian-style glyphs and fres-coes on the walls, it's like dining in a pharaoh's sarcophagus.

There were three of us; we received just two menus and had to wave and beg for a third. "Here's two spoons," the waiter said, delivering flimsy, mismatched cutlery with our bowl of the house soup ($6) -- it seemed one of us had become invisible. Playing musical spoons, we enjoyed the hearty bowl, which mingled several types of lentils in a complex, intense tomato broth with the satiny heft of good gumbo. Moroccan pastilla ($10) proved a "For Dummies" version of North Africa's intriguing phyllo pie, decent but simplified, filled with moist, bland shredded chicken. "The Sultan's Maza" ($16), assorted appetizers to feed three or four, contained everything but the sultan himself. Like the whole of Amira's menu, it took an anthology approach to Islamic cuisines. The least common items (both Turkish) were a fascinating garlicky walnut dip (used in Turkey to sauce fried mussels) and a delicious salad of tomato slices with tahini (sesame paste) sauce. The dolmas and vivacious tabbouleh were identical to Istanbul's; the hummus and baba ghanouj were richer, with more tahini, less yogurt. The falafel were, oh, normal.

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