"You know, they just need to get over that," she said. I had to agree.
So there you have it: I don't know much about Turks, but from what I saw at Piyassa they're a hard-partying bunch. The place was bursting when my friend Liz and I arrived on a Friday ("Mediterranean Night," which draws Turks, Persians, Italians, Spaniards, and whoever else might care to show up). Foreign-language covers of old disco tunes flowed from the sound system. At the back of the restaurant, I beheld a vision that will be seared into my memory for at least three incarnations. To my right sat 20 young women, and to my left, 16 more, with nary a man in sight. All were drop-dead gorgeous in that dark-eyed, soul-shattering sort of way. If I could paint that scene, I'd title it Cleavage Family Reunion (these ladies weren't the most modest dressers). According to our waitress, the groups represented two separate birthday parties -- one all Turkish, one mixed. Eventually, the tables were cleared, the back area became a dance floor, and all at once, the disco ball I'd been wondering about made perfect sense.
Piyassa is a bit of a hot spot on weekends. Weekdays are reportedly more mellow, but either way, the place puts out a fine meal. The style of cooking, what the menu calls "Contemporary Northern Mediterranean," strives less for the authenticity and complex spicing you'll find at Aziza (a Moroccan place), the Helmand (Afghan), or Maykadeh (Persian). Many traditional dishes have been toned down, a few needed more salt, and others are so familiar they could just as well be labeled "American." Still, the prices are reasonable, the menu allows adventurous diners to explore new territory, and the execution is such that nearly everything we tried was worth ordering again.
The restaurant's owner, Aykut Akcaoglu -- aka DJ Aykut -- is no stranger to the business (previous versions of Piyassa were located in Istanbul and Paris). The man knows hospitality, too: A hostess greeted us like old friends as we stepped into a narrow, supper clubbish space done in warm red and gold tones. Tables run along one side, a bar along the other. The latter hosted a standing-room-only crowd at 8 p.m. At first, I wasn't sure what to expect of the place. On the one hand, Piyassa's décor includes some elegant touches (white tablecloths, arches set with mirrors behind the bar). On the other, local restaurants that aspire toward sophistication don't place packets of sugar and Sweet'N Low at every table. A humble, 24-bottle wine list ($17-49) yielded a clean, grassy Clos du Bois sauvignon blanc, but also a stinging, tannic house red. Our waitress, yet another friendly type, recommended the house cocktail, the Artini (named after Art the bartender) -- a candy-tasting sip whose ingredients are a secret (it reminded me of an Alabama Slammer, itself made of sloe gin, Southern Comfort, and amaretto).
The menu at Piyassa is a lengthy document that runs from Turkish kebabs to Italian pastas, French onion soup, and Caesar salad. We started with a basket of white bread and a thin, herb-flecked, oil-and-vinegar dip. An appetizer of dolmas -- succulent, rice-stuffed grape leaves served with tomato and minted yogurt sauces -- could have used more oomph but was still tasty enough that we finished the plate within minutes. The soup of the day, a smooth, silky vegetable purée, also tasted bland at first, but a dash of salt brought out the flavors to yield a homey, satisfying starter. Piyassa's octopus salad consisted of delicate slivers of devilfish tossed with bell peppers, tomato, romaine lettuce, and olives. The dressing needed more vinegar, but the olives offered a pleasantly bitter counterpoint, and a hint of oregano contributed a depth of flavor that has allowed the salad to resonate in my memory ever since (like those 36 beauties).
Entrees include European fare like our first choice, lamb chops marinated in red wine, olive oil, and herbs. The chops were flawlessly grilled, with a touch of smoke giving way to a juicy, savory interior, and came with a rich, pine nut-laced pilaf and a side of sautéed vegetables. If you've had moussaka in the Greek style -- most often a dense meat-and-eggplant casserole -- Piyassa's vegetarian version will make for an interesting change of pace. A light, fresh-tasting mélange of zucchini, onions, mushrooms, and melting, heavenly eggplant came with a topping of mozzarella and a delicate white wine/ tomato sauce. It was a lovely plate, but even then it didn't compare to chef Naim Sit's specialty: stuffed sole with cream sauce. Tender flesh enclosed a simple yet irresistible filling of shrimp, mushrooms, and shallots.
A brief dessert menu includes more familiar options -- tiramisu, crème brûlée, and a house-made baklava. Our choice, a mild, creamy rice pudding, didn't blow our minds, but it made for an adequate finish. By that time -- around 10 p.m. -- Piyassa was beginning to transform. The crowd was now two deep at the bar, the young lovelies from the back room had begun mingling, and as swarthy, well-dressed dudes streamed through the door, the scene began to resemble a cheek-kissing contest. As we left, the hostess stamped our hands in case we wanted to return (unfortunately, we had other plans, but the gesture was still appreciated).
The food critic in me can't go so far as to declare Piyassa an excellent restaurant; there were too many near-misses. But the San Franciscan in me knows that if you want a good meal, friendly service, and a chance to shake it Mediterranean-style, you'd be hard pressed to find a better one-stop destination.