If it seems like Turkish restaurants are invading our culinary landscape at an accelerated clip, that's because they are. Until 2004, Clevelanders had precisely zero Turkish eateries in which to sup. By the end of summer, we will have four. Perhaps that's because, despite its exotic-sounding pedigree, the cuisine is remarkably approachable, largely healthful, and ideally suited to our meat-and-potatoes sensibilities.
For the past six years, Anatolia Café had been the only game in town, operating first at Cedar Center before relocating to Cleveland Heights. But summer 2010 might as well be called the "Season of the Turks," with three separate Turkish restaurants opening or scheduled to open. Avon's Dervish launched in June, Istanbul unveiled its Tremont shop in July, and Alaturka is slated to open on West 25th any week now. The escalation is so brisk, in fact, that Anatolia Cafe's website still proclaims that — ahem — it is the "first and only Turkish restaurant in Northeast Ohio."
While Avon might seem an illogical place for a Turkish restaurant, owner Ashley Candan says that dozens of Turkish families call the area home. But that's irrelevant, she adds, because upwards of 90 percent of her clientele is non-ethnic — proof positive that the cuisine is easy to get behind. Candan runs the restaurant with her husband Mehmet, his cousin the general manager, and a New York-trained chef of Turkish descent.
Set in a contemporary strip mall, the restaurant flaunts a design set we have come to expect from the genre: stained concrete floors, boldly painted walls, and blacked-out exposed ceilings. What is unique about Dervish is the remarkable restraint the owners exhibited when it came to decorating. Unlike too many ethnic restaurants, the imported tchotchkes here are kept to a tasteful minimum. There is no bar — just standard booths, tables, and banquettes. There is no booze either, until the liquor license arrives later this year. (Staffers recommend that thirsty diners make the very short walk to an adjacent wine shop.)
There is a lot of crossover from one Turkish restaurant menu to another. Aw, who are we kidding — menus are practically identical. So any variation is a welcome sight, and Dervish boasts more than a few wildcards. An appetizer of fried zucchini ($5.25) is like a Middle Eastern latke, with shredded squash standing in for the potato and garlic-scented yogurt for the sour cream. Stuffed grape leaves ($5.75) are far from rare, but we very much enjoyed the version served here. Fluffy, high-quality feta elevates another classic starter, fried phyllo cigars ($5.50), from enjoyable to exceptional.
What you won't find at other Turkish restaurants is the traditional pide bread that is baked daily at Dervish. Distinct from the thin rounds served elsewhere, this version is thick, crusty, and dotted with sesame seeds. It goes great with the mixed appetizer platter ($11), which is laden with healthy spreads like hummus, baba ganoush, tabouli, spicy roasted eggplant, and thick walnut-studded yogurt with dill. Another rarity in these parts is lamacun, a thin-crusted Turkish pizza ($10.95) gilded with a fine layer of ground lamb and vegetables.
Grilled meat fans have no better friend than a Turkish restaurant. Really, steakhouses offer fewer options. The less adventurous can ease into things with a basic kebab: cubes of marinated chicken ($11.25), perhaps, or fancy-pants filet mignon ($14.75). While on the gamy side, the lamb shish kebab ($15.50) offers a tad more novelty than chicken or beef.
But when it comes to flavor on a stick, the smart money is on the adana kebabs: finely ground chicken ($10.75) or lamb ($11.75) mixed with spices, pressed around a skewer, and grilled. Gyro lovers don't know what they're missing until digging into Turkish doner ($11.25), the vertical spit-roasted lamb and beef mixture. Diners hungry for variety can opt for mixed platters that contain two or more types. The grilled meat dishes are served either with rice or in a yogurt-spiked tomato sauce.
Dervish also offers more fish dishes than similar restaurants, with simply prepared shrimp, red snapper, and salmon entrées alongside the meatier options. For more timid palates, there is a homey version of stuffed cabbage.
For the sweetest of finishes, tack on an order of Dervish's housemade baklava ($4), a labor of love boasting more layers than a Don DeLillo novel. Dusted with fine green pistachio powder and dripping with sticky honey, the dessert is a tasteful reminder that foreign can be fun.
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