Taste the Mediterranean at Cleveland Heights’ Anatolia Café

No turkey here: Char-grilled lamb nestles in mounded yogurt and tomato-butter sauce. - Walter Novak
No turkey here: Char-grilled lamb nestles in mounded yogurt and tomato-butter sauce.

Fresh, wholesome, and authentic, the flavorful food coming out of Anatolia Café's kitchen hits just the right note between exotic and approachable. That probably explains the crowd on this Saturday night, an eclectic blend of ages and ethnicity all snuggled into comfy booths or sturdy tables in the relocated restaurant's new Cleveland Heights digs.

With its soaring ceilings, wooden floors, and shiny open kitchen, it's a vast improvement over the café's first cramped quarters, in a shabby strip plaza in South Euclid. Among other things, today's comparatively vast square footage (once home to a flower shop and a thrift store) has allowed owner Yashar Yildirim to install an ample lobby, two long dining rooms, and a cozy wine bar, where he pours an engaging assortment of Turkish, French, and New World wines, along with cocktails, mixed drinks, and 18 imported and/or craft-brewed beers.

Our pick tonight: the Efes Pilsen ($4), from Turkey, which goes down smooth and crisp. And for non-imbibers, either the sweet-tart cherry juice or the yogurt-based, lightly salted ayran — much like Indian lassi — makes a refreshing libation.

Admittedly, Anatolia's new location lacks some of the taverna-style intimacy of its former address. What has been lost in elbow-to-elbow camaraderie, though, is more than made up for in handsome decor: two fireplaces, banks of tall windows, and walls painted in luscious shades of paprika, orange, and butter, all serving as the bright backdrop for colorful Turkish textiles and pottery.

Although somewhat slow at the outset, service proves warm and welcoming. From our windowside table overlooking Lee Road, it's initially hard to know whether to take in the passing parade or dive headlong into the menu, which is filled with dishes both familiar — hummus, baba ghanoush, falafel — and unusual, such as the poetically named sigara boregi (light, crunchy, feta-filled pastry "cigars") and etsiz bamya (okra in herb sauce, over rice).

Sooner or later, though, our appetites take over, and we launch our explorations with a bevy of starters, just right for sharing around the table. Soft, warm pita wedges, for instance, make ideal scoops for mellow haydari, a light yet satisfying dip of thick homemade yogurt, walnuts, dill, and a gentle nudge of garlic. Also eminently scoop-worthy is a nutty-flavored hummus that, while not as lemony as some, still tastes pure and fresh.

Oohs and ahhs follow the first forkfuls of a perky white-bean salad, garnished with chopped tomato, red onions, and romaine, and slices of hard-boiled egg; a mild herbal vinaigrette unites the notes in summery harmony.

On the other hand, cubed veal liver turns out to be a hard sell among this night's timid companions. Too bad, because the dish is killer — tender, remarkably nuanced, and with just the barest suggestion of dusky, organ-meat overtones. Dusted in spicy, seasoned flour, sautéed to spot-on crispness, and settled onto a plate with sliced tomato and red onion, each little morsel is a savory explosion.

When it comes time to pick an entrée, it helps to love lamb: Fully half the main dishes feature it — ground, cubed, or as grilled-to-order chops, dusted with Turkish oregano. Good: four pudgy cabbage rolls, filled with a blend of rice, ground lamb, and ground beef. Better: slim slices of lamb-and-beef doner (similar to Greek gyro meat), sided with fluffy rice pilaf, fresh green beans, and carrots. And best: the shish kebabs with yogurt — flawlessly trimmed cubes of uniformly tender lamb, bursting with charcoal-grilled goodness, on a bed of sautéed pita croutons, tangy yogurt, and sweet-tart tomato-butter sauce.

Among non-lamb alternatives, the bland-sounding chicken adana (ground chicken seasoned with red bell peppers and paprika, then shaped around a skewer and grilled) proves surprisingly savory, thanks largely to the same crouton-and-yogurt accompaniment. But for real sizzle, it's hard to beat the shrimp kebab — five large tiger shrimp, marinated in lemon juice and spices, and served up sweet, moist, and wafting twin scents of seawater and smoke.

For dessert, worth-the-calorie splurges include honeyed baklava and its conceptually similar cousin, kadayif; and an ultra-creamy rice pudding. Also consider kazandibi, a firm "milk pudding" similar to blancmange. (We could have done without the swoosh of chocolate sauce, though, which mostly just masked its delicacy.)

Afterward, cups of sweetened apple tea and a demitasse or two of tar-black Turkish coffee help speed us on our way.

Our short trip back to the foyer is peppered with thanks from the staff, a touch that's sure to make even new visitors feel like old friends. "Come back soon!" they bellow as we head for the door. With the café's engaging food, colorful surroundings, and moderate prices, odds are that guests will want to do just that.