Love, Smothered in Yogurt

Giving in, impetuously, to the best Turkish restaurant in town.

Sometimes a great first date is as troublesome as a bad one. You talk excitedly about yoga and childhood pets, you spend the next few days all twitchy and distracted to see him again, yet you know there's a good chance that on date two he'll obsessively pick all the onions off his taco and check his text messages 15 times too often. Then there are those first dates that leave you iffy about your prospects for true love, but when you meet up a second time you realize that he has the most beautiful nose you've ever laid eyes on and he discovers that seven of his top 10 books are on your shelves.The same is true, I've learned, with restaurants. "No hope/no fear" has become the mantra I recite each time I feel my stomach gathering in on itself at the fragile possibility of new love. The formula wasn't enough to stave off worry when I returned to Bistro Turkuaz after some glorious appetizers and kofte kebabs. Would date number two be as good as date number one?Date three is yet to come, but after date two, I'm ready to make the call: Turkuaz is a funny little restaurant, owned by a mother-daughter team, with a Made-in-France decor, a bare-bones wine list, and the best Turkish food in town.Déjà vu struck on my first date with the Madrona restaurant last month, because it hadn't changed a whit since I'd reviewed it in its previous incarnation, a French place called Bistro Mazaran. There were the same affluent-looking white women sitting on the other side of the blinds; the same closely spaced tables, red accents, and high ceiling armored in embossed tin plates, all giving the room a boudoirish charm; even the same Provençal landscapes and Toulouse-Lautrec prints tiled on one golden wall. The biggest shock: The same waitress, with dark eyes and ringletted black hair, stood at the ready. She had been my favorite part of my meals at Mazaran, with the studied formality of an ingenue in a period romance belying her wickedly deadpan sense of humor.Once waitress, now owner—well, daughter of the owner. Her mother, Ugur Oskay, who is also the chef, lived in Germany for most of her life, where she owned a restaurant with her brother. She's run a catering business since moving to Seattle three years ago. Ugur used her experience to help friend Nohra Jacobs open up Mazaran a year ago. But an awful run of luck—family problems, an accident—shut Jacobs down several times (including a week after my review of the place was published in the Weekly), and she eventually turned the business over to Oskay in November.Oskay didn't change much. When she and daughter Dila reopened the place in mid-April, they simply printed the menu on the same paper in the same damn typeface, switching out the beef Bourguignon for patlican, mucver, and kofte kebabs. The first two are listed amid a long list of appetizers, while the flip side of the menu lists a half-dozen entrees and three desserts. Those proportions aren't a bad guide to ordering a meal: For three people, Dila recommended we get three or four meze, as they're called, and two entrees, and it was just the right amount of food—at about $30 a person, not including wine.Meze, the tapas of Turkey, are meant to be enjoyed both in taverns—with glasses of milky, anise-intense raki and water—or at the beginning of a home-cooked meal. Many of the appetizers will seem familiar: humus, babaghanuj, shepherd's salad. If the different combinations of eggplant, peppers, mint, garlic, and, above all, yogurt—more sour than you've tasted, yet more unctuous, and dolloped on every plate—remind you of your visits to Greek or Lebanese restaurants, thank the Ottoman Empire, which had the same influence on the food of the eastern Mediterranean as McDonald's and Pizza Hut have had on North America.It wasn't the ingredient list that impressed me, it was Ugur's sure sense of balance, which gave these simple dishes a refinement that seemed particularly Turkish. In the patlican, cubes of roasted eggplant appeared to be drowned in a garlicky yogurt sauce sprinkled with flecks of reddish, sweet-tart dried sumac berries, but when I scooped up some on a pita triangle, the velvety, sweet chunks of eggplant were matched by the perfect tang. The acuka (ah-DJOO-kah), Turkuaz's house specialty, blended roasted walnuts with red peppers, oil, garlic, and a touch of lemon juice so perfectly that their toasty, sweet, vegetal notes all fused together.A few of the dishes were merely good, in the sense that we cleaned off the plates but did it slowly. There were fritters of shredded zucchini and feta, topped with a spoonful of strained yogurt, which I savored but would have inhaled had they been fresh instead of reheated—"I made them myself yesterday!" Dila told us—and a casserole of shrimp baked in tomato sauce that I enjoyed but wouldn't order again. (While I'm grouping all my gripes: At dessert time, sugar syrup and time had bled all the crackle out of the phyllo crust of Oskay's chocolate baklava. Of course, that didn't stop me from running my finger around the plate to pick up the rest of the ground nuts.)That wasn't the case with the kofte kebab: fat slider-sized patties of ground lamb, each on its own spoonful of chunky tomato sauce. The kofte were good enough on their own, but when I dipped bites in cacik (a yogurt sauce with cucumbers, mint, and garlic) and touched their surface to tiny piles of ground cumin and sumac on the plate, each bite hit the palate differently, like walking around a statue while looking at it through a prism.I spent a few weeks trying not to think too hard about the meal, spending the meantime reading through my Turkish cookbooks (not a good substitute, let me tell you), before tentatively making plans to return.But meal number two wasn't just equal to the first; it was better.There were no sharp lemon notes, unpureed chunks of chickpeas, or overwhelming garlic blasts in the humus, yet all those flavors were present in the light, creamy puree. Same with the babaghanuj, which had an appealing smokiness. And it was hard to tell how cucumber, garlic, and herbs came together to augment the yogurt in the cacik; yogurt's not a subtle ingredient, but its sour impact contained subtly varied swaths of flavor. (In the future, I hope the cooks will introduce even more, and more unfamiliar, meze. I'd also like to see the Oskays expand their affordably priced wine list to include more bold, distinctive wines from southern Italy and Greece that would pair even better with the food than the pinot gris and cabs they currently offer.)After the meze, we ordered two kebabs, speared on thin metal blades with ornate handles: chicken, covered in herbs, and the Turkuaz special, skewered slices of marinated lamb. Kebabs can seem like backyard barbecue fare, but these both reminded me why so many cultures love chopping meat in small chunks, marinating the hell out of it, then twirling the skewer over high flames: Just about the time a smoky, crisp-charred crust forms on the outside of each piece, the insides hit that juiciest, just-cooked point. The chicken skewer was served with rice and cacik for slathering on top, while the lamb skewer was perched on what looked like the messiest concoction ever but tasted indescribably good: pita chunks and roasted eggplant tossed with tomato sauce and ringed with at least a cup of thick, smooth white yogurt.I can't say that Turkuaz's food is the most rapturous ever—it's Turkish home cooking, not a four-star banquet—but it's made with such care I couldn't help falling in love. In other words, no hope, no fear, only hunger.jkauffman@seattleweekly.comPRICE CHECKPatlican -- $8Acuka -- $9Turkuaz plate -- $15Chicken kebab -- $14Kofte kebab -- $15Turkuaz special -- $20

 
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