Keeping tabs on Cleveland's Turkish restaurants can be a bit like playing the name game. Up until 2004, Northeast Ohio had zero Turkish eateries, a shortcoming remedied by Yashar Yildirim, who opened the bar-setting Anatolia Cafe at Cedar Center and later relocated it to its current spot on Lee Road in Cleveland Heights.
In 2010, Anatolia was joined in the marketplace by Istanbul Grill, which opened in the freshly remodeled Hotz Valley View Cafe space in Tremont. That same year, Dervish Grill opened in Avon and Alaturka opened in Ohio City, taking over the original Kan Zaman spot. Alaturka lasted only one year as the property was gobbled up and rolled into the Townhall development.
In 2013, Istanbul Grill closed its doors in Tremont, but it was almost immediately replaced by Dervish Grill, which swapped its Avon address for a Cleveland one. Dervish closed two years later, itself replaced by Tandul, an Indian restaurant that is still going strong.
When Dervish closed its Avon spot, it was replaced by Istanbul Grill, a Turkish restaurant that has no connection with the short-lived Tremont spot of the same name. This place is owned by Mehmet Aziz Duyar, who previously operated a pair of Turkish restaurants in New Jersey. In a city that very recently had four Turkish restaurants but is currently down to just two, Istanbul Grill is a cherished member of the community.
Appearance-wise, Istanbul Grill looks pretty much identical to Dervish Grill, your typical suburban strip mall space with a contemporary dining room outfitted with stained concrete floors, boldly painted walls, and blacked-out exposed ceilings. One wall offers a pictorial journey through Anatolia thanks to colorful photographs and accompanying descriptions.
Warm, fresh-baked pide, a sesame-dotted flatbread that is considerably thicker than common pita, is delivered to the table almost immediately along with a yogurt and spicy tomato-based sauce. That bread goes great with the mixed appetizer ($16.99), a platter containing portions of hummus, baba, tabbouleh, stuffed grape leaves and labneh, lush and creamy yogurt augmented with walnuts, garlic and dill.
In the hot starter department, the ever-popular sigara boregi ($7.99) are tough to top, a collection of crispy cigar-shaped phyllo rolls filled with dill-flecked feta. Less successful this time around are the zucchini pancakes ($7.99), pan-fried cakes made with shredded zukes that soaked up a bit too much oil. Istanbul also prepares falafel, calamari and red lentil soup.
Diners can always count on Turkish restaurants to offer bright, fresh salads, and Istanbul delivers. In addition to the refreshing chopped veggie-filled shepherd salad ($7.99), there's a perky white bean salad ($8.99) with firm cannellinis, diced tomatoes, red onions and fresh parsley in a light lemon and olive oil dressing.
Istanbul excels at grilled meats. The kitchen offers the full complement of kebabs, from marinated beef, chicken and lamb cubes to ground and seasoned lamb or chicken adana. The classic spit-roasted doner (gyro) meat is shaved and tucked into sandwiches ($8.99) at lunch, or served atop fluffy rice pilaf ($14.99) at dinner. In the impressive iskender kebab ($15.99), that lamb/beef gyro meat is served atop torn pieces of pita bread, which soak up a buttery tomato sauce and cool, creamy yogurt. Seafood fans will have few qualms about the grilled shrimp kebabs ($19.99), medium-size butterflied specimens with just a kiss of char from the grill.
Turkish stuffed cabbage ($15.99) is not unlike American stuffed cabbage. It's a homey, cool-season dish of tender cabbage leaves filled with a warm-spiced lamb, beef and rice mixture. Four perfect pouches are nestled into a pool of smooth tomato sauce and garnished with yogurt.
If you arrive on a Sunday, you're in luck. That's the only day of the week that Istanbul offers its lahmacun, or Turkish pizza ($12.99). This popular street food is built atop a thin, crisp flatbread, with a paste-like topping made from ground lamb, tomato and herbs.
For dessert, a diner can't go wrong with an order of flaky, honey-soaked baklava ($4.99) or the buttery, cheese-filled shredded pastry dish kunefe ($6.99) paired, naturally, with a cup of Turkish coffee.
The warm service and consistency of product at Istanbul is representative of the genre, a class of restaurants that specialize in straightforward, healthy and flavorful foods that should appeal to most modern diners. That's why it's surprising — and a bit worrisome — that Northeast Ohio is back down to just two options. Given our boozy fondness for late-night gyros, you'd think we'd be beating a (tipsy) path to their doors.