Delightful surprises from a Turkish menu
Turkish menus are an oddity. You can open one, read a line about a dish, and still have no idea what you're going to get. Here's an example: "Yogurt kebab" on Rizelli Cafe's menu says, "Cubed pita bread, cooked with butter and topped with tomato sauce and yogurt. Served with salad. Available with Chicken ($13.50), adana ($14.00), and lamb ($15.00)."
A dish of cubed bread with two sauces that comes with chicken or lamb. It's hard to picture. What arrives is a heaping plate of chicken morsels - plump, moist 2-inch pieces - lightly bathed in a mildly spicy tomato sauce. Under it, looking like little rafts, are buttery, toasted pieces of bread. Thick warm yogurt forms pools around the tomato mixture, so the effect is both cooling and sweet, with real heat from a slender roasted green pepper. As we devour it, the young woman across from me pronounces it the best dish of the night.
She's not quite right. The best dish is the patlican salad (an eggplant spread) that Huseyin Akgun has been making in this area for 20 years. He wowed me with it at his Istanbul Cafe on Beacon Hill, then again at Anadolu Cafe near Massachusetts General Hospital (both places are now closed). Akgun moved Istanbul Cafe to Brighton, had a disagreement with his landlord, lost in court, and went out of the restaurant business for a while. Now he's back with this 16-seat place across from Brookline Family Restaurant, another popular Turkish spot whose chef worked for Akgun. Lucky local residents now have two great Turkish spots on one street. The latest addition is decorated in turquoise blue and brick red, with handsome rugs on the walls.
Warm bread is the first thing we sample. Glazed golden on top, it comes with a red bell pepper dipping sauce that we just can't get enough of.
Patlican salad ($7) is so common to Turkish cuisine - in fact, to almost every kitchen from the eastern Mediterranean across to the Middle East - that there are hundreds of versions. Baba ghanouj is one similar dish. What makes Akgun's salad stand out is that there isn't a trace of bitterness in the eggplant, the mixture is only lightly smoky, and the texture is beautiful and smooth.
Zucchini fritters, called mucver ($6), are flat rounds with wispy edges. Sumac, a dark red spice ground from berries, is dusted all over white beans in piaz salad ($7), which is loaded with lemon juice and onions. After the patlican, hummus ($6) isn't exciting. But imam bayildi ($10.50) is a vision: two small eggplants stuffed with tomatoes, pine nuts, and bell peppers. Sigara borek are also beautiful. flaky, golden cigarettes are made from phyllo dough wrapped around a mixture of feta cheese.
Like the yogurt kebab, the buhara kofte ($16) turns out to be a surprise. Long slices of eggplant are rolled around a mixture of ground beef and lamb, then baked with the bright house tomato sauce and cheese, and garnished with thick yogurt and another delightfully hot roasted pepper. Iskender kebab ($16) combines thinly sliced lamb - the kind that cooks on a vertical spit - with more of those buttery toasts. The meat is well cooked, but still moist. On another night, that same sliced lamb isn't as successful in doner kebab ($14). Adana kebabs ($14), long skewers of ground meat served with rice, are juicy morsels.
For dessert, a pistachio baklava ($3.50) is just OK. Ordinary rice pudding ($3.50) is stellar. A creamy, eggy mixture with tender grains, the baked pudding is lightly scented with vanilla.
As a young man, Akgun left Rize, where he was born (the people are called Rizelli, hence the restaurant name), and went to work at a big Turkish restaurant in Switzerland where his uncle also worked. The cuisine is labor intensive, and the place where he trained probably had lots of hands making this complex food. That's not the case in Brookline. But Akgun manages, and he can take bread, butter, tomato sauce, chicken, and yogurt and turn it into something memorable.