If you are looking for Middle Eastern dining that’s tastier, closer to campus, and better lit than Mamoun’s, then Istanbul Café is the place for you. Unfortunately, if you are not willing to pay thrice the price, it’s not. Located on Crown Street near the corner of College, Istanbul Cafe offers a top-notch Turkish meal at prices that will have you eating $2.75 falafel for a month.
If money is no object, Istanbul Cafe is a lovely place for a meal. The decor evokes a Middle Eastern ambience without feeling kitschy. The restaurant is quiet and a great place to sit and enjoy a long conversation over a bottle of wine. And wine is something you should definitely spring for at Istanbul Cafe: The wine list is impressive and well written, and the wines at Istanbul Cafe are surprisingly reasonably priced. Though there are some expensive reserve options, there are some great bottles available for around $20.
The menu is not nearly as pleasing. Printed on thick paper that’s meant to imitate vellum, the pages are hard to turn, the font hard to read. Even worse than the design of the menu is the writing: one dish is “sharpened with lemon” and another is “both zesty and nutritious.”
But I should not nitpick; Istanbul Cafe offers some great food. The appetizers are not to be missed, and like the wines, they are not prohibitively expensive. Yaprak Doma ($7) is the Turkish version of grape leaves, stuffed with spiced rice and dripping with olive oil. These vegetarian renditions of the Greek favorite are some of the best I have ever tasted, with a flavor that is spicy but not overwhelming, and rich but not oily. Most of the appetizers are dips that come with the restaurant’s special homemade bread. Served warm from the oven, the bread is an amazing creation that I can only describe as tasting like a really good, extra flaky soft pretzel.
The Nohut Ezme ($6) is the Turkish version of hummus, creamy and garlicky without the pasty texture of bad hummus. It is also the best version of hummus I have ever eaten, and I have eaten a lot of hummus. Another appetizer to try is the Ispanak Ezme ($6.50), a pureed salad of tomato, cucumber, onion, parsley, green pepper, and walnuts producing an intricate, layered flavor totally unlike anything I have tasted. The best way to try all of the appetizers is to order a Soguk Meze ($17 Small; $23 Large). Literally translated as “cool spread,” the Soguk Meze is nothing more than a sampler platter containing 5 or 6 of the restaurant’s appetizers. As a starter, the small version is more than enough for 4 people.
The entrees at Istanbul Café burst the bubble of high hopes inflated by the wine list and appetizers. While there are a good number of dishes, they are all variants on the lamb-or-chicken-cooked-on-a-skewer-with-spices-and-vegetables theme and deciding which to order comes down to guesswork. Entrees range from $15 to $19, which is more than I want to pay for a kebab. The Adana Kebab ($17) is a very traditional kebab, spiced lamb on a skewer. The meat is tasty and well cooked, but not much better than the $7 kebabs at Mamoun’s. The Yogurtlu Kebab ($18) is better, served on warm bread and drizzled with a yogurt sauce, but it is still not enough to keep me coming back.
The food at Istanbul Cafe competes well with Tandoor and Thai Taste, but their entree prices rival those at Zinc and Basta. In the restaurant’s defense, their portions are humongous — after eating half of an appetizer, I was barely able to put a dent in my entree. But I don’t need eight pounds of kebab for $16, I just want a serving of kebab for $10. Alas, it’s a cruel, cruel world.
Istanbul Cafe has been at the same location on Crown Street for years, yet the restaurant attracts few Yalies. I had long wondered why, and now I know. The food is excellent, and if they knocked $5 off every price on the menu, they would be in business. But unless you are a freak for Turkish food, there are better meals to be had for the same price. As my grandfather was fond of saying, “I’d always wanted to eat there, and now I have.”
If a full meal is what you are after, you would be better off spending your money at Zinc, Basta, and the like. But I would not write Istanbul Cafe off completely. My advice: Grab a friend and go to Istanbul Cafe. Order a bottle of wine and an appetizer and enjoy each other’s company. Then enjoy a walk to Mamoun’s and get a kebab.