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More Than Friendly

by B.A. Nilsson on October 24, 2013

Istanblue Mediterranean Cuisine, 68 Congress St., Saratoga Springs, 581-0181, istanbluemediterranean.com. Serving lunch 1-3 Mon-Fri, dinner 11-11 daily. AE, D, MC, V.

Cuisine: Turkish-Mediterranean
Entrée price range: $14 (vegetable sauté) to $29 (mixed grill)
Ambiance: improbably charming

There’s construction in the parking lot. The restaurant has yet to get its liquor license. Service is provided by a mix of articulate pros and wide-eyed youngsters. And it all comes together in a repurposed Friendly’s, nicely redecorated on the inside but still giving off that corporate eatery vibe.

But chef-owner Rauf Ziya is unperterbably enthusiastic about his new restaurant—open just over three months—in Saratoga’s Congress Plaza. It’s the city’s first Turkish restaurant, but it’s something like the 15th restaurant that Ziya has opened in 30 years, beginning with what he believes was the first Turkish restaurant in the United States, which he opened in Brooklyn way back then.
He has a nephew who runs a pizzeria in the Capital Region; when Ziya visited, he fell in love with the area. As to putting together the offerings, “I looked at the menus of my other restaurants and tried to choose the items that I think work best,” he says, “and that the customers seem to enjoy the most.”

Although the smaller plates are disguised as cold or hot appetizers, they can be the making of a meal. Hummus and babaganouj and tabouli and stuffed grape leaves ($7) are vital components, and you can enjoy them all on a “cold medley” plate ($16) that also includes an eggplant salad ($7 by itself) described on the menu as being “puréed in perfect harmony with finely chopped tomatoes, onions, fresh herbs and spices.”

Leading off the hot apps page are zucchini pancakes ($7); as one whose garden effloresces with way too much of the stuff, I’m always keen to find tasty preparations. This one ranks high. The squash is shredded into a compote that includes carrots and an excellent array of seasonings, and they’re fried to a crisp finish and served with tzatziki. The $7 finger roll is phyllo stuffed with feta and parsley; cauliflower ($7) is breaded and fried and served with garlic sauce; mozzarella sticks ($7) also are available (“But I don’t know why,” our server confided.) Much as I enjoy pursuing the unfamiliar, I find falafel ($7) a reliable indicator of an eatery’s true Mediterraneanality. These were spectacularly rich with flavor that went well beyond the expected chickpea and parsley components. Again, portions of the preceding five dishes are available on a single, $16 plate. Fried calamari is $7, but I’m planning next time to try the cheese-stuffed grilled baby calamari ($7) and the grilled octopus in a pomegranate sauce ($9). Lentil soup is always available ($4), and a variety of salads is offered in small and large sizes, including the Anatolia ($8/$9), which features chopped tomatoes, green peppers, onion, garlic and herbs.
Central to a restaurant like this is the rotisserie of the lamb and beef mixture known as doner kebab in Turkey (and elsewhere as shawarma or gyro), and it’s one of several grilled items Istanblue offers (and it’s $17 as an entrée). Ground lamb is central to the adana kebab ($16); lamb cubes make up the shish kebab ($19). Lamb is also available in traditional grilled chops form ($25), and nervous traditionalists can order beef in the form of sirloin ($24) and filet mignon ($28).

Leading the seafood list is char-grilled sea bass ($23); grilled salmon ($21) and shrimp kebab ($21) also are available. Among the sauté dishes are mixed vegetables ($14), spinach ($14) and lamb ($19), but my wife opted, as always, for chicken ($16). Sautéed chicken is a staple in our house; here it’s prepared with cauliflower and squash and served in a light, aromatic tomato sauce with sides of rice and bulghur. There’s a basket of homemade bread on the table. This is where you’ll want to use it.

Bread is already part of the entrée known as Iskender ($18), because the rotisserie meat is served over pita that’s been moistened with yogurt and butter and tomato sauce, which also decorates the sliced meat and turns the whole dish into what’s essentially an inside-out sandwich, something that fortunately survives well as a leftover.

The Turkish version of moussaka ($18) is a casserole of ground meat served with vegetables in a tomato sauce, and it’s available here, as is a preparation of stuffed cabbage ($18). But I’d go for hünkar beğendi ($18), named for the notion that it pleased the sultan for whom it was created. Traditionally a stew of lamb served over puréed eggplant mixed with cheese, it’s also available with chicken or veggies.

Service was attentive throughout our meal, and I was pleased to note that some of the other customers seemed to have become regulars, arriving with wine in hand (you can buy a bottle nearby). A city doesn’t feel truly mature until its restaurants show an appreciable ethnic variety. This is exactly the kind of place Saratoga needs, and it’s clear that Ziya and his crew are looking to cultivate a clientele that will visit throughout the year. Which means that right now would be an excellent time for you to discover this place.