Meze, the tradition of small plates eaten with drinks that ranges from the Middle East to Greece, seems like a great direction to take a restaurant in the Financial District looking to scoop up some business from the post-work crowd. And the new Turkish spot in the shadow of the Transamerica Building, Machka, looks the part of a sleek, urban tapas bar, with its exposed brick walls, Turkish movies playing on a silent loop, and tall bar tables and chairs, with one long communal table in the middle. But its menu and prices speak of an upscale restaurant specializing in expensive Mediterranean fusion, and despite some interesting glimpses into traditional Turkish dishes, never quite lifts off into a transportive dining experience.
All meals start with a side of Turkish pitta bread, not the flat Middle Eastern pockets we're used to, but rounds of fluffy, sesame-seed-garnished rolls brushed with butter. They're served with a vessel of uninspired olive oil and balsamic vinegar, but ignore that — the bread is flaky and buttery enough to eat on its own, though keep some around to sop up the saucy dregs of the plates to come.
Mezes are traditionally served with wine or a drink like raki, an anise-flavored Turkish apertif. Machka has no liquor license but a long wine list that divides whites and reds by geographic region: “West Coast” is mostly California with a few Oregon and Washington bottles; “Mediterranean” offers a grab bag of wines from Greece, Turkey, Italy, and France. Guided by the friendly and knowledgeable servers, we discovered that the by-the-glass white from Ankara was dry, innocuous, and eminently drinkable — nothing like the piney retsinas from Greece — while the red was thin-bodied but had enough personality to stand up to big flavors like lamb. For beers, there are a few Turkish brews along with the usual California bottles.
Several mezes were good, but all a bit bewildering in their own way. Blue cheese-and-chorizo-stuffed dates would be tasty under any circumstances; here the kitchen has taken the extra step of wrapping them in Armenian dried beef and frying them for an effect that was nothing short of brilliant. But there were only four small dates on the plate, afloat on a sea of frisee, the most awkward of salad greens. The salad had a bright sherry dressing, but we just wanted more dates.
The falafel meze was a similarly small portion — just three falafel, each about the size of a silver dollar and nearly as dense as a hockey puck, hanging out with minimal dressing on a long rectangular plate. They were well-spiced and tasted as falafel should, but also reminded us that the chickpea fritters shouldn't be served in such stark, modern isolation; they badly needed moisture. If you must have falafel, order it in the dürüm wrap, which has a layer of yogurt sauce to offset some of the dryness.
Lamb tartare, still playing second fiddle to beef in restaurant menus around town, was magnificent with bursts of fresh mint, whole grain mustard, and Moroccan argan oil. We spread it on the toast fingers that came with it, then on the pitta bread, and eventually finished it with our forks. We did not finish the accompanying haricots verts salad: green beans in a yogurt dressing that was so dissimilar from the tartare it seemed like they'd wandered from another dish entirely.
Fattoush salad was a little boring; it didn't rise above an ordinary green salad despite its smattering of tomatoes, cucumbers, and feta hunks. But the beet salad was an elegant composition of red and golden beets, sliced cucumbers, and arugula, garnished with pistachios and a citrusy vinaigrette. The best part was the feta cream underneath the vegetables, a tangy lovechild of yogurt and cream cheese, which added just enough richness to the salad without stealing the spotlight.
Machka used feta to a similar innovative end in the potato gratin that came with the grilled lamb rack entrée — the salty cheese added flavor to a dish that's usually a bland counterpoint to the rest of the meal. But there were only three little lamb chops on the dish, and at $30 a plate, we wanted more. (Then again, we don't make banker salaries.)
Most of the young professionals around us ordered the kebabs at both lunch and dinner. The best is the adana kebab, a winning combination of lamb and beef that combined with the garlicky chimichurri-like sauce for a spicy, slightly musky, piquant, addictive bite. The curry chicken kebab didn't fare as well — the meat was dry and tasted like the contents of a spice drawer, and the garlicky dip had nothing to hold onto, so it came across tasting like raw garlic.
For dessert there's authentic künefe: shredded filo dough around an elastic, mozzarella-esque cheese, doused in orange blossom syrup. It came with a scoop of almond-coconut ice cream that tasted like an upmarket Almond Joy; both were delightful, but came off as two different desserts on one plate. Like so many moments during the meal, it offered a pleasant surprise, but never came together in a distinct culinary vision.