Kings of Kebab
I suppose most folks have their own, somewhat flattering image of themselves, and I am no different in this regard. In my mind's eye, I'm a cross between Sydney Greenstreet's character Signor Ferrari in Casablanca and the so-called "wickedest man in the world" Aleister Crowley, though I lean more toward the fictional Ferrari. How I love to picture myself, sitting in some Middle Eastern cafe, sipping Turkish coffee in my red silk fez and suit of white linen, and perhaps puffing on a water pipe, as I wile away my time playing solitaire.
I do have a fez, though no suit of white linen at present. As for solitaire, I hardly have the time for such a leisurely activity, boyo. These columns don't write themselves! Moreover, I don't yet have the money to retire á la Paul Bowles to Tangier, or to seek residence in Istanbul. Though maybe one day I will, if I ever win big at the roulette tables. However, I now have a cozy little corner of Constantinople wherein I can enjoy my Turkish coffee and pretend.
The establishment of which I speak is three-month-old Efes Turkish Cuisine in Tempe. Thank heavens it's an eatery that I can recommend highly, as it would depress me no end if I were forced to pan it. Efes exists because of the labors of brother-sister team Orhan Yildirim and Gulten Silbahar, who moved from New Jersey about a year ago to start their dream restaurant in the Valley. And though even they would admit that their restaurant is still a work in progress, already they've attracted a loyal following of customers who come for chef Mustafa San's Anatolian entrees as well as the enchanting Turkish decor and music.
A handmade, hand-painted wooden bar divides Efes' one large room into two distinct areas. To the left is the kitchen, and before it a number of Western-style tables and chairs, with scenes from the old Ottoman empire mounted on the walls and surrounded with colorful fabrics. To the right of the bar is my favorite area and the one that fills up most quickly, a raised section around which a low couch runs the gamut of three walls. Turkish rugs with black, red and orange patterns cover every inch of available space in this nook above and below, and on the floor are steel-topped tables with small stools beside them. From the ceiling hang lamps brought from Istanbul made of blue, red and yellow glass. Beneath them people can sit and enjoy the sort of atmosphere that was once common to most Turkish households, according to Yildirim and Silbahar.
But that's not all. One wall is taken up entirely with a display of beautiful Turkish pottery, and throughout the restaurant are hung flat, blue-glass eyes known as nazar boncuk, which are used in Turkey to ward off the evil eye and any other sort of bad luck. Another mystical, almost romantic touch is the name of the place itself. Efes is Turkish for Ephesus, the ancient city known for its Roman ruins and its importance to the early Christians. It was there, according to legend, that Mary mother of Christ spent her last days on Earth.
But the name and adornments would mean less if the victuals were not as impressive as they most certainly are. This is some of the best Middle Eastern cuisine I've had in the Valley, and a testament to Chef San's culinary skills as well as the Turkish palate in general. The mainstays of the menu are the kebabs, of which Efes offers several types. The chicken kebabs are succulent and golden, covered in paprika and other spices, and served with slices of pita so placed that they suck up the juices from the large nuggets of bird. You also get some Turkish-style coleslaw, seasoned with mint, a little cup of garlic aioli for the chicken, a grilled tomato and pepper and a mound of buttery, browned rice -- the kind with those short strands of vermicelli-like noodles stirred in.
The other kebabs come with the same array of sides and a similar mixture of spices that San keeps as his secret. After sampling his work, you'll see why he's so protective of his recipes. San's lamb kebab is tender, rich and subtle in taste and texture. I only wish there were as much of it as there is of the chicken, but the high quality of the meat compensates for the smaller portion. The adana kebab and adana tavuk are ground lamb and chicken kebabs, respectively, with the spices mixed into the flesh itself. Savoring them transports you instantly to that magical peninsula between the Black and Mediterranean seas. The same can be said of San's hand-rolled yaprak sarmasi, or stuffed grape leaves, which are filled with rice, pine nuts and currants, and served warm, looking like a plate of plump, green Cuban cigars.
Eggplant is a big deal to the Turkish people, and there are a number of ways to consume it on Efes' menu: stuffed with a mixture of tomatoes, onions and red peppers; stewed in a sauce or mixed with yogurt and garlic in the Turkish version of baba ghanouj, known as ali nazik; or included in saksuka, an assortment of fried veggies. I believe I also detect eggplant in San's special red sauce, which comes with a basket of pita and a cup of yogurt sauce to cut the red one's spiciness. However, if you ask San about that red elixir, he'll never tell you what's in it, as he shrewdly plans to market this condiment sometime in the future.
I find it difficult to do Efes' bill of fare justice as there are so many excellent items on it. But one standout I must mention is the arnavut ciger, or cubed, fried calves' liver with an onion garnish. I know a lot of folks despise liver, having been traumatized by it in their youth, but even if you don't care for it, I urge you to try it, as it's quite yummy and will go well with beer or raki, the Turkish liquor that's equivalent to ouzo. Both drinks should be available as this review is published, because Efes has just acquired its liquor license and plans to start serving posthaste.
As regards dessert, there are only a few served at the moment: a standard baklava, a baked rice pudding, and my pick for dessert of the year, a decidedly non-Turkish cheesecake created by co-owner Yildirim, which is exceedingly fluffy and accented by lemon, orange and vanilla. Three cheers for Yildirim's outstanding confection! But will they have it in Istanbul if my plan to retire there is ever brought to fruition?
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