It took us a few moments to process the music playing over the restaurant sound system. At once familiar and exotic, the tune toyed with our memory until we finally nailed it: "Hotel California" by the Eagles. Only this version was instrumental, and the instrument was a Turkish folk guitar.
In hindsight, there may be no more appropriate anthem for Istanbul Grill, a new Turkish restaurant in Tremont inside the former Hotz Valley View Café. The gritty workingman's bar managed to survive in this property-hungry neighborhood for 80-odd years. Today, all that remains is its sturdy wooden bar. Elsewhere, all traces of the former tenant have been expunged, giving the storefront a cheery new disposition.
Time was when Cleveland made do with just one Turkish restaurant. Those times are over, thanks to two additional entries in the genre, plus a fourth on the way. That doesn't surprise us one bit. The cuisine is far more approachable than its exotic-sounding pedigree might have you believe. The simplicity and straightforwardness of the food all but demand fresh ingredients and deft technique. And when it comes to value, it's tough to compete.
Istanbul's menu offers few surprises to fans of the cuisine — or at least to fans of the American restaurants that specialize in it. The cast of characters includes creamy dips and spreads, garden-fresh salads, juicy grilled meats, and highly seasoned spit-roasted specialties. Vegetarians are well taken care of too, with meat-free options appearing throughout.
Most tables begin their meals over a platter of mixed appetizers. Warm, floppy wedges of fresh-baked pita are dragged through nutty hummus, smoky baba, and refreshing dill-scented yogurt. For a bit more zip, try the ezme dip, a chunky salad of chopped tomatoes, peppers, walnuts, and zesty spices.
When it comes to hot starters, it's impossible to sidestep the addictive sigara borek, slender deep-fried pastry tubes filled with parsley-scented feta. An appetizer that combines savory cubes of spice-dusted calf's liver, sliced red onion, parsley, and lemon is far, far better than it might sound.Appetizers are priced between $5 and $7, and include a seemingly bottomless basket of pita. Mixed platters for two ($13.50), three ($18.50), and four ($24) will satisfy numbers greater than advertised.
Most entrées fall into two categories: kebabs consisting of whole meat and those made up of seasoned ground meat. In the former are dishes like chicken shish ($13), lamb shish ($14), and filet mignon shish ($15), skewers of marinated meat bits that are seasoned, grilled, and served alongside rice. These items are simple, delicious, and filling. Diners who prefer a bit more kick in their kebabs tend to go the adana route. Finely ground chicken ($12) or lamb ($12) is heavily seasoned, pressed around a skewer, and grilled. Ground meats tend to have more fat, leaving them juicier than their whole-meat counterparts.
Better still is the doner, the Turkish version of the gyro that is sliced from a twirling vertical spit. The toothsome house-made concoction is served simply with rice ($12) or more elaborately with tomato sauce and yogurt in a dish called iskender ($13). The cool yogurt melts into the hot tomato sauce, forming a velvety blanket. Pita pieces on the bottom of the plate soak it all up.
Lunchtime is a tasty bargain, with hearty meals consisting of lentil soup, meat-filled pita sandwiches, and fries going for $11.
What is most fascinating about Istanbul is how, despite the transformation from dive bar to Turkish restaurant, the joint never ceased to be a welcoming neighborhood hang. Sure, the food and beverages have changed, but not that wonderful sense of Tremont kinship.