See where your mind can wander after standing in line for a table for 45 minutes, on a snowy Saturday night . . . in January . . . in South Euclid? Sure, if your usual dining destination is Applebee's or Bahama Breeze, this may not seem like such a big deal. But for a small, independently owned restaurant in a rundown little strip plaza? Such turnout -- particularly in the dead of winter -- is the stuff of fevered dreams.
Anatolia (the ancient name for Asia Minor, where most of modern Turkey is located) doesn't accept reservations for small parties -- and why should it, when its policy of "first come, first served" finds the café packed? So even on a weeknight, the wait can be substantial. The payoff, of course, is a chance to gobble down the deliciously authentic fare, which hits just the right note between accessible and exotic.
A little bit Greek, a little bit Middle Eastern, and perhaps even slightly northern Indian, the names, ingredients, and flavor notes will strike familiar chords for veteran tabletop travelers. Among the meats, for instance, lamb figures prominently. For piquancy, the use of thick, tart homemade yogurt is a given. And in the produce department, eggplant, chick peas, and okra are the go-to goodies in any number of dishes.
Although highly seasoned with herbs like parsley, garlic, dill, and oregano, the cuisine is rarely hot or spicy. Take the beyti, an entrée of chopped lamb seasoned with garlic, onion, parsley, and hot peppers, then shaped around slender skewers and grilled to a juicy turn. Lively and flavorful enough that even a salt-fiendish companion never reached for the shaker, the dish owed merely the slightest nod to the reported chiles.
The only other item we came across that packed heat (this time mostly in the form of Turkish paprika and freshly ground black pepper) was the semi-smooth, salmon-colored red lentil soup. Served in a big white bowl, in a room done up in shades of pumpkin and melon, with baskets, pottery, and intricate Turkish carpets hanging on the walls, it was a festive little party for the palate, as well as an aromatic prelude to the main event.
Of course, that's the other part of Anatolia's allure: the energetic, communal vibe that makes every visit feel like a celebration in the town taverna. After all, with diners crammed elbow-to-elbow into nearly every nook and cranny, there is no such thing as a private conversation; and with a team of doting staffers, serving under the direction of omnipresent host and owner Yashar Yildirim, it's impossible not to feel like a member of an extended family. Throw in a couple bottles of Turkish beer or wine, in fact, and it's a wonder that the room doesn't spontaneously break out in song.
For sure, we could have belted out a few numbers after polishing off a 1999 bottle of ruby-red Kalecik Karasi ($45), an elegant, well-balanced wine from Kavaklidere, Turkey's oldest and most prestigious winery. (Lower-priced viniferous options on the modest wine list range from a California Cab to a Hungarian kosher Riesling.) Plenty of red-fruit flavors and a hint of vanilla made the Karasi an ideal companion to lamb, whether in the form of succulent oregano-topped lamb chops or in the famous döner kebab, Turkey's riff on the Greek gyro.
A combo of highly seasoned beef and lamb, the döner kebab, like the gyro, is grilled on a rotating vertical spit; as the meat cooks, broad mahogany ribbons of it are cut away, with a very sharp knife, to be served in a pita (at lunch) or over buttery rice (dinner). Dark and coarse, the meat may look a little dry; in reality, though, it is mouthwateringly moist, yet completely grease-free. On the dinner platter, you'll also spot a stack-up of sharp red-onion slices, a strip of grilled green pepper, and a plump, juicy grilled tomato, and it would be a grave miscalculation to treat them merely as colorful garnishes. Instead, enjoy them with a bite of meat or a bit of rice, and let their juicy, smoky essences expand and enhance every other flavor on the plate.
Alternatively, check out döner's dressed-up cousin, iskender. Here, the sliced meat is served on a bed of sautéed pita croutons and topped with a sweet-tart swish of light tomato sauce and sour-cream-like yogurt. Or for variety, try the same yogurt-and-tomato-sauce treatment on medium-rare cubes of marinated lamb or on perfectly grilled morsels of boneless, skinless chicken breast.
If döner is a delightful spin on the familiar gyro, Anatolia's versions of hummus and baba ghanoush are happy surprises too. Heavy on the tahini, the hummus tastes dense, sleek, and almost nutty, with lots of garlic and the barest hint of lemon. As for the baba, the coarse but creamy mash of smoky eggplant is tremendously rich and moist, without the slightest hint of the bitterness that often mars lesser versions.
For dairy fans, a starter of haydari -- thick, homemade yogurt blended with garlic, dill, and finely chopped walnuts -- scooped up in warm, pillowy pita, is a treat. However, diners who crave crunch should choose the crisp sigara böreÿi, slim "cigars" of phyllo-style pastry wrapped around a piquant blend of warm feta and fresh parsley. And for those who favor the familiar, there is always the fried calamari. At first taste, the pale, breaded ringlets seemed fairly unimpressive, but a squirt of fresh lemon juice and a swoosh of zesty yogurt-garlic sauce made them snap to life.
According to our server, Turkish meals typically start with a cup of tea, and we took ours, as is the custom, from a dainty, gold-rimmed glass. As a nonalcoholic accompaniment to our meal, we ordered ayran, a drink of thick, icy-cold yogurt with the tang and body of fresh buttermilk. And after dessert -- baklava, its conceptually similar cousin kadayif, and firin s&3252;tlaç, a cool, creamy, baked rice pudding -- we sped toward our meal's conclusion on the wings of sweetened Turkish coffee, which arrived thick, tar-black, and poured into ornately decorated demitasses.
By this point -- after joking with the staffers and daring the couple at the next table to read our fortunes in our coffee grounds -- we felt like old regulars. So understandably, it was with some regret that we finally slipped into our coats and made ready to leave. A clasp on the shoulder from our server, a handshake from our host, and a hearty "Goodbye, friends!" from the bartender, and we were back out on the sidewalk, the cold wind in our faces, but the glow of good food and camaraderie still warming our souls.
Oh, what the heck. Even if Anatolia Café was my little secret, it's too good to keep to myself.