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New Jersey Restaurant Review

Authentic Turkish Cuisine
Restaurant reolocated from Voorhees to Philadelphia
226-228 Vine Street
Philadelphia, PA

By The Artful Diner
Special to New Jersey Online
August 28. 2001

This review reflects the critic's impressions at the restaurant's former location. The Artful Diner will return for an update in the near future.

"Cleanliness," John Wesley once remarked, taking a bit of poetic license with the thoughts of Sir Francis Bacon, "is indeed next to godliness." And while the Rev. Mr. Wesley's sermonic admonition actually had appropriate dress in mind, his words are equally valid in the restaurant realm as well. In point of fact, when contemplating the ingestion of various victuals -- especially those of a relatively unfamiliar nature -- matters hygienic are definitely not a minor consideration.

While there are, of course, exceptions to every gastronomic rule, if the front of the house and the restrooms are all spit and polish, you may be reasonably assured that the kitchen will be found in a similarly sanitary state of affairs... And Authentic Turkish Cuisine's cozy 50-seat dining room simply sparkles. You discover beautiful gold tablecloths displayed beneath spotless glass, walls adorned with an intriguing variety of Middle Eastern artifacts, and not an errant crumb or speck of dust anywhere in sight. You receive the distinct impression that the entire establishment has just undergone a thorough scrubbing, top to bottom, but a moment before you crossed the threshold.

Ensconced in yet another nondescript strip mall just across the way from the Main Street complex and joined at the hip with a take-out Pizza Hut, this seems a highly unlikely location for an eatery offering up such an exotic bill of fare... And yet, judging by the rush of satisfied patrons, proprietors Ayse Atay and Melek Basaran appear to know exactly what they are about. Indeed, they are absolutely correct in their assumption that Garden State diners are becoming infinitely more adventurous. Thus, while Ms. Atay attends to managerial chores, her mother, Melek, succeeds in turning out a lustrous array of impeccably prepared Turkish cuisine that keeps the area's knowledgeable foodies coming back for more.

You begin with a basket of pide, a soft-crusted Turkish flatbread with a wonderfully chewy interior. This is accompanied by sweet, scented rose petal preserves and diminutive containers of butter. Purists, however, may wish to have a go at the bread au naturel, as it is undoubtedly rich enough to stand on its own significant merits; better still, order the hummus ($4.25) and slather or dip away. The menu bills the hummus as the "Best in Town," and I am inclined to agree. The ground chickpeas, tahini (roasted sesame paste), lemon juice, drizzle of olive oil, and pinch of sumac are all in the proper proportions... And there's just enough garlic to tantalize rather than paralyze the taste buds.

Another suitable target for enthusiastic dips and dabs is the creamy baba ghanoush ($4.95), a superior amalgam of puréed roasted eggplant, tahini, lemon juice, cumin, and parsley. And speaking of eggplant... the imam bayildi ($4.95) has long been a favorite in Middle Eastern establishments. The term, which may literally be translated "the priest fainted," is undoubtedly descended from some fanciful mythology or legendary embellishment. While the curious traditions lurking behind its inscrutable etymology have yet to be completely demythologized, the dish itself -- roasted eggplant stuffed with sautéed tomato, onion, green pepper, and parsley -- remains a palate-pleasing revelation.

Liver isn't to everyone's taste; however, should you have a penchant for this particular delicacy, you will certainly enjoy starting things off with the arnavut cigeri ($5.25). Tiny morsels of liver are rolled in paprika and a plethora of exotic spices and then pan-fried to succulent tenderness and garnished with a zippy onion salad and lemon wedge.

The spinach borek ($4.25) is yet another worthy prelude. A luscious homemade pie filled with spinach, rich and tangy feta cheese, onions & peppers nestles comfortably on a bed of greens dressed with tomato slices. On one occasion, the crust was a smidgen on the soggy side but quite excellent nonetheless.

Kebabs, skewered morsels of meat, fish and fowl that have been marinated and grilled -- with or without benefit of vegetable accompaniment -- are undeniably the most popular of the Middle East's signature dishes... And here the presentations are benchmark. The incredibly moist lamb cubes ($12.95/$13.95) are bursting with flavor. Ditto the chicken ($13.95). Also highly recommended is the char-grilled skewered swordfish ($16.00) that has spent time luxuriating in olive oil, garlic, black pepper, and white wine.

But don't be shy about increasing your options, as there is an exciting culinary kingdom beyond the kebabs. The finny fare, for example, is always superb, and there are a number of specials offered on a daily basis. The red snapper ($24.95) may be simply prepared and presented, but the impact upon the senses is, indeed, profound... proving once again that matters piscatorial are best served by accoutrements that intrude the least. The filet is grilled and then finished with just a touch of an absolutely ethereal saffron sauce. The delicate flesh is firm of texture, pristine of countenance, and alive with the unadulterated flavors of the deep.

When it is available, trout ($24.95) is similarly prepared, as is the sea bass ($28.95). However, should you favor a slightly more assertive companion, the pomegranate fish sauce will provide an appealing alternative.

You are also on solid gastronomic ground by requesting the baby lamb chops ($17.95), lamb shank ($12.95), or chicken topkapi ($16.50), a boneless breast stuffed with shiitake mushrooms, spinach, mozzarella & pine nuts, and finished with a creamy tomato sauce.

Entrées are generous to a fault, and accompanying portions of rice pilaf, bulgur wheat or couscous are equally extravagant. Trust me, you're not likely to go away hungry... But sweet endings are something of a must here, so be sure to save a bit of room.

At the top of my dessert hit list is the beguiling kasefe ($4.50), stewed apricots swimming in a honey syrup flavored with cloves, dusted with ground walnuts, and topped with whipped cream. Coming in a close second is the baklava ($3.50), flaky phyllo dough filled with pistachio nuts. A bit more mundane, but equally up to the mark, is the oven-baked rice pudding ($3.50). Whatever your predilections, however, don't forget to top things off with the excellent Turkish coffee ($2.50).

If you have yet to sample the joy of Turkish cuisine, this lovely restaurant will surely provide you with a most delectable introduction to its complex and captivating delicacies.

Afiyet Olsun!

Cuisine: Turkish/Middle Eastern
Hours: Mon - Thurs, 11:00 a.m. - 9:30 p.m.; Fri & Sat, 11:00 a.m. - 11:00 p.m.; Sun, 3:00 p.m. - 9:30 p.m. Lunch is served 11:00 a.m. - 3:00 p.m.; dinner from 3:00 p.m. - closing.
Credit Cards: AX, MC, V, Diners Club
Attire: Casual
Smoking: Smoking is not permitted in the restaurant.
Reservations: Recommended
Parking: Onsite
Alcohol: BYOB
Price: Moderate (although some specials tend to approach the expensive category)
Handicapped Accessible: Yes
Specials: Live Turkish music and belly dancer on Thursday evenings.

The Artful Diner is an independent, freelance food writer.  His latest review and an archive of past reviews for restaurants around the country and the world can be found on this site on the REVIEWS page.

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