Friday, October 7, 2011

A Metaphorical Ornament

Turquoise Grill
3720 North-West Loop 410
(on the inside of the Loop, in the shopping center
 near the intersection of Fredericksburg Road)

"Turquoise" is an Old French word meaning "from, or of, Turkey." The semi-precious stone got its name from the fact that it first came to Europe by way of Turkey. Europeans, as ignorant of geography as any ordinary American schoolchild, believed Turkey was the source, not the middleman, of the stone. 

What I saw of Istanbul
A friend of mine took me to Turquoise Grill for the first time two or three years ago. Having spent a short time in Istanbul, I was eager to try the local version of Turkish food. My own experiences with the cuisine were limited, for the most part, to chai (meaning, simply, tea, not the gussied-up concoction of sugar and spices one finds at all the trendier coffee houses of the Starbucks Era); doner (the ubiquitous street food that consists of a pita stuffed with meat — a food that, 200 miles west, would be very familiar to me as a gyro; but that's a cultural squabble that I'd rather not get involved with), and a single accidental visit to a commonplace cafeteria on  Cumhuriyet Avenue, offering the Turkish version of dim sum (Lord, don't I wish I'd found that place on the first day instead of the last!). Being there alone, with no local guidance ("Don't worry," said everyone I know who knows Istanbul, "everybody speaks English there, you'll be fine." Many do, I suppose, but I did not find them. The only people I found who spoke English in a useful degree were the night clerk at my hotel and the counter attendant at the cafeteria, God bless him.), my explorations of that amazing city, and its equally amazing cuisine, were haphazard and confused. 

Turkish food is very much like Greek or Lebanese food, as you would expect. After all, the things that go into traditional Turkish food would be things that grow around there, and while the distance from Istanbul to Athens, or from Istanbul to Beirut, may be huge in cultural terms, in agricultural terms it's like going from San Antonio to Waco: slight. Seasoning differs to some extent, but if you enjoy any Mediterranean cuisine, or any western-Asian cuisine (like Persian), you'll enjoy Turkish food.

On a number of visits to Turquoise Grill in the years since my first introduction, I've come to settle on Adana kebab (named for a city in south-central Turkey) as a favourite; normally I wouldn't bother looking at the menu anymore. But tonight, for some reason, I was in a mood to try something different. The place has a new menu anyway, and I wanted to see if they offered a dish I had recently enjoyed at the other Turkish restaurant in town. (They didn't.) 

So this time, on a cross-cultural whim, I chose spaghetti. My wife, who apparently fell prey to a similar whim, chose a dish that was described on the menu as "Turkish lasagna." (I would tell you the names as they appear on the menu, but the restaurant's on-line version is not working properly on my computer, and I can see nothing of that page except the heading, "Salads.") To lead off the meal, I chose a soup made from puréed lentils in a tomato-based liquid, with interesting seasonings. It was delicious, almost lush: spicy without being piquant, more substantial than broth but not thick. 

Turkish spaghetti, as presented at Turquoise, differs from what American palates are accustomed to, in the inclusion of yogurt and butter in a tomato-based meat sauce. The seasonings are also quite different, and the overall effect is quite good. The yogurt gives the sauce a creamy character, but otherwise the appearance of the dish is much like anything one would get around Mulberry and Spring Streets; and the seasonings are exotic but subdued, and stealthy: they suggest a distant place that is at once familiar and unknown. 

The "Turkish lasagna," by contrast, bears no physical resemblance to the well-known Italian dish. This meal is presented as a single layer of small, curly pasta covered in a white sauce, mainly of yogurt, with the oil exuded by the ground meat floating in little pools on top. The seasonings are, again, quite different from anything found in the layered Italian dish, but still the food is very tasty in its own way. 

The entire meal was accompanied by a light, thick, soft bread with sesame seeds and, it appeared, cracked pepper. I always enjoy a good bread, and this was much more pleasing than the bread I was served at the other Turkish restaurant in town. 

Last city inspection: June 2011
only 3 demerits!
The main dining room at Turquoise is quite large and spacious; a smaller, more intimate open-dining room stands off to the side, along with a banquet room. The décor is attractive, not heavy-handed, and pleasant, particularly an attractive four-panel openwork screen separating the dining areas. Everything was kept clean and neat, though this might be in part because we were there on a Friday before sundown, when the local Turkish community is still celebrating its Sabbath. With few people in the place, the staff had no trouble keeping up with its chores. And this could also account for the excellence of the service, though I have been at much busier times and have never had reason to complain. (And yes, I do realize, as all who know me will attest, that I need no reason to complain. I am, after all, a curmudgeon.)

The prices are reasonable for food of this quality; the overall bill at a restaurant like this is always a pleasant surprise, since alcohol is not served. Not being charged the customary exorbitant restaurant prices for wine at dinner always makes the check, when presented, seem remarkably, and pleasantly, small. 
Turquoise Grill on Urbanspoon

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