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.
A short, pricey wine list -- there's a 400 percent markup on some bottles -- skimps on choices by the glass, with even fewer actually in stock. The house jug, Vendange ($3.25 a glass), proved more drinkable than the sole white alternative, a sour Penfolds organic Aussie chard ($5.50); the Monterra merlot ($6.25) lacked character. The beer list looks long and exotic, but they were out of all imports save Almaza ($4).
"Amira's Feast" ($26), with tastes of every charbroiled dish on the menu, is a dinner sampler for two, a logical choice given our apparently imaginary third party. We were quite taken with the rounds of grilled zucchini and the juicy, gently seasoned chicken breast kebabs ($11 as an entree) and with the Libyan chicken, rectangles of breast meat redolent of cumin, lemon, and the grill. Shrimp kebabs ($14), served unshelled, were nicely done and faintly sweet -- but the kitchen proved fallible when it came to mammals. The lamb kebab ($13) was overcooked so dry that it tasted only of salt, while the kafta ($10), ground beef cigars, emerged like nuggets of tree bark, forlornly hinting of fresh herbs in their mixture. (Amira also offers a "Vegan Feast" for $20, including "our house specialty seitan" over rice. If seitan's the house specialty, that might account for the murdered meats.) Another initially enjoyable entree was apricot chicken ($13). The shredded meat of the pastilla reappeared in a honey-sweet, perfumed apricot sauce, sprinkled with almond slivers and sesame seeds, topped with a pair of cooked apricot halves and served over rice. For the first few bites, we found it gorgeous, but its sweetness eventually grew cloying; it might make a better appetizer.
After this syrupy main course, we didn't crave dessert. The kitchen solved that problem easily: Their only house-made dessert is rice pudding, augmented by purchased baklava and packaged sweets (lokhoum and halva). Forgoing the calories, we wanted to pay our bill and depart -- but the Amira obstacle course blocked our way. The waiter returned my Visa with a slip saying "canceled," gruffly declaring, "I hope you have cash. Your credit's no good." Suppressing many possible rejoinders, I merely told him that the card was perfectly fine -- he might have miskeyed something -- and if not I had several other cards. His second attempt with the same card succeeded. No apology was offered. We'd eaten well, but we went home mad.
What this town still needs is an honest Turkish restaurant.