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Turkish Delight

Emre Karaoglu gave Denver its first Turkish restaurant with Istanbul Grill.
Mark Manger

The first time I went to Istanbul Grill was about a week after John Lehndorff reviewed the place for the Rocky Mountain News. There were big photocopies of his review on the counter, a whole stack, and the servers were handing them to anyone who asked and almost anyone who didn't. They had plenty of copies. What they didn't have was food.

"Last night, we ran out," one of the waitresses working the counter told me. She was pretty, young, totally exhausted, with that jagged giggle some people get when they're on the verge of collapse -- a forced, hiccupping kind of thing, reflexive, punctuating every sentence.

"Ran out of reviews?" I asked.

"No." Giggle. "Of food." Giggle. "By seven o'clock, we had almost nothing left." She laid her hands down, palms flat on the counter, and took a breath. Her eyes were wide, and there was a thin line of sweat at her hairline. "I don't know what we're going to do."

Istanbul Grill was full. More than full, it was dense with people -- chairs pulled around to turn four-tops into fives and six-seat rounds into eight-tops or better. There were people surrounding me at the counter that quarters the back of the small dining room, people squeezed into booths, people jammed up by the front door waiting for takeout, waiting for tables, waiting to be noticed by passing servers -- heads down, arms lined with plates -- because Istanbul Grill has no hostess, no maître d'. Waiters and waitresses, all young, some of them probably still teenagers, worked like a frantic machine stuck together with gum and duct tape, right on the verge of rattling itself to pieces.

Back when I was still cooking, we had a favorite phrase, deeply treasured, to describe a guy (usually a young guy, usually on his first or second night working fryers or garde manger) who was so far down that he could no longer see beyond the next ticket. When he was flustered, when he'd lost the long view and had that white-eyed, glassy stare that signals the onset of total adrenaline burnout, he was "shitting dandelions," as in, "Check out Bob. Motherfucker's so deep in the weeds he's shitting dandelions."

And that's where the servers at Istanbul Grill were, working a room so over-full that the walls swelled outward with people and panic. On bad nights, hysteria has a smell -- greasy like sweat and rotting garlic, hard like hot aluminum foil. And on this night, the second weekend after a Friday review, Istanbul Grill was swimming in it.

At the counter, the waitress asked what she could get me. The process of ordering was like calling dibs on the kitchen's rapidly diminishing stock. I gave my order -- doner kebap with lemon and lentil soup, urfa, gozleme and baklava -- and she shook her head. Urfa was 86'd, no soup left, no gozleme. I counter-offered with lamb chops and hummus. She checked with the kitchen. Lamb chops yes, hummus no; they'd just run out. Was baba ghanoush okay? And no more baklava. Last order went out the door while we were talking, so how about sutlac? Baba was fine, but what was sutlac? She described it: rice pudding, thick and topped with cinnamon or maybe nutmeg -- very tasty. I said no, forget dessert (I hate rice pudding), but what about plain lamb kebap? Yes. Lamb kebap yes. Plenty of that.

"It's funny," she said, as she wrote my final order on her pad. "They keep buying more, but we keep running out." She giggled again and looked up at me. "I have no idea how long this is going to take."

"That's okay," I said. "I've got time."

My second visit to Istanbul Grill was about two weeks later, on a Saturday night, and though the room was full again, it had lost that absolute frenzied edge of Beatles-at-Heathrow madness. My timing was flawless. I walked through the door right as a four-top was vacating, just ahead of a large party assembling in the parking lot outside, and slid right into the only open table in the house. A waitress floated past and into the kitchen, her eyes rimmed with tears. Another went by holding six coffee cups in two hands.

Owner Emre Karaoglu ran Ray's Grill, a straight-up American joint, in this same location before reopening it last year as Istanbul Grill, which his business card calls "the first Turkish restaurant in Colorado." And while that would seem to fill a very small niche market, apparently the people of Denver were hungry for Turkish food -- maybe without even knowing they were until it was finally available to them.

Lamb and lamb and more lamb, kebap after kebap -- Istanbul's offerings make Turkish food look so simple at first glance, with the lunch menu a repeat of everything on the dinner menu, just wrapped in a pita and turned into a sandwich rather than presented over pita and laid on a plate. Like Greek food and Lebanese food and Middle Eastern food in general, Turkish food works from a limited selection of ingredients, a palette made up of a dozen or so strong, vital primary colors. The magic comes in the way these shade together, how urfa (skewered ground beef with Turkish seasoning, broiled on a stick) and kofte (ground beef with Turkish seasoning broiled on a grill) can each taste completely different -- the urfa sausage-y, stiff and dense and red with paprika, the kofte loose and tender, shot with parsley and dry herbs -- and be presented as though they have nothing in common. Once you really get your nose in and start sniffing around, you find other Turkish delights. Low on the menu's first page -- under lunch, below all the strip-mall Chinese-style pictures of other plates on offer -- there's musakka: Turkish lasagna topped with a French béchamel, made of more seasoned ground beef shivved with thin-sliced potatoes and roasted eggplant so soft it has the texture of a seeded pudding. There's kuru, Ankaran comfort food made of sautéed white beans in olive oil with a rough mirepoix of onion, celery, carrot and tomatoes, and sarma beyti, Istanbul Grill's signature dish, offering urfa wrapped in soft lavas bread like a Turkish enchilada, then topped with a wicked tomato sauce blazing with paprika and cooled by a garlic-spiked yogurt.  

The baklava (when I finally got a chance to taste it) was like a punch in the mouth from a fist wet with honey. An order consists of two small phyllo squares, each one about a zillion calories, and so packed with sugar I'm surprised they don't tremble on the plate. They're like bombs glazed in sugar, cored with crushed walnuts, brushed repeatedly with simple syrup (essentially sugar dissolved in boiling water so that it will take on more dissolved particulate than plain physics should allow) and dosed with lemon. Two bites and I was twitching like a lab monkey attached to a car battery. Three and I could see Jesus. Four and he was dancing with Buddha and Walter Matthau up in the light fixtures. After that, I asked for a to-go box.

A few weeks later I dropped by for a quick lunch, a chicken kebap sandwich. This time, I was the only customer. Employees, family members, kids and grandparents came and went through the kitchen door while I sat, waited, looked around the yellow dining room with its linen tablecloths and paper napkins, its cheap silverware and tiny, beautiful, enameled china coffee cups, and studied the menu some more. It pissed me off that the kofte were described as miniature hamburgers, but that's just convention, just menu-speak. When my sandwich arrived, it was too hot to eat, so I took it with me. Inside the foil, the pita was soft, the tomato, onion and lettuce drooled with marinade and dusted with fresh parsley, and the side of cucumber-yogurt sauce like tzatziki but thinner, the desiccating effect of the cucumber muted by parsley. It was an excellent meal, if a dangerous one, since I ate it two-handed while driving with my knees.

When I dropped by Istanbul Grill a fourth time, it was closed -- the place had just been robbed (see Bite Me for details). But when I returned the next night, everything was business as usual -- slow, maybe, but this was a Tuesday, and the room was far from empty. The vibe was more convivial, less desperate, and the whole menu available. Karaoglu was in the kitchen with a knot of servers and friends of the house, fussing around the cold station and prepping meze (cold apps) and talking. The room was filled with music -- astringent Middle Eastern pop -- and the smell of raw onions and roasting meat. I had coffee, then lemonade mixed with honey and rosewater that would've been perfect with a shot of vodka or akavit, except that there's no booze at Istanbul Grill. I ate dolma spiced with cinnamon and currants, and great hummus. The soup of the day was a red-lentil concoction, roughly puréed, spicy with red-pepper paste and complicated with cumin, garlic, onion, lemon, pepper, maybe mint and something that tasted like oregano but probably wasn't. I scraped the bottom of my bowl to get the last of it, then wiped it clean with a pita.

Doner is probably the most recognizably Turkish dish in the traditional canon; it looks like gyros, which just about everyone is familiar with. But doner is spiced differently, more sharply, cooked first on the skewer like shawarma, then shaved off and crisped on the flat grill. And for the Turks, doner is just the start, the base of a dozen or a hundred doner-centric dishes that include iskender, one of the world's best uses for a giant log of pressed lamb meat.  

Iskender is doner shaved thin, topped with a smooth, dimly spicy tomato gravy, topped again with a wash of broken butter, then topped again with yogurt that's almost like an Indian raita. Done right, iskender is amazing -- and Istanbul Grill does it better than right. It does iskender shamelessly, does it extravagantly, does it in such a large portion that no sane and sensible person could ever eat the whole thing. The meat -- which is set over a nest of quartered pita gone soft in the sauce -- is spiced, the gravy spiced, the butter floating like an ethereal blanket on top of every other flavor, and the yogurt bringing everything together, wedding the broken butter to the tomato to the meat.

I ate half an order of iskender before I surrendered, before I couldn't take another bite. It was already past eight, past the posted closing time, but the servers were still taking tables, the kitchen still putting out plates. The room was full of smiles and music and talk, the tables crowded with babies and grandmothers and couples and singles. The air smelled of coffee. Before I left, I asked for another hit of the kitchen's baklava packed up to go, because you really shouldn't eat that stuff and then drive.

But I did anyway, dipping into the box with my fingers as I rolled down Hampden Avenue, letting Jesus and Buddha and Walter Matthau dance me all the way home.


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