The Bosphorus, a mile wide stretch of water that connects the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, has been a vital link between cultures since the days of Jason and the Argonauts. (Yes, they really did exist!) The fact that my spell-check program insists on renaming this historic waterway phosphorus or biospheres speaks volumes about the perception we have over here of all things Eurasian. Long since relegated to shocking pastiche by movies like Midnight Express, Turkey, which borders the Bosphorus, is a country and a people largely ignored in these parts. Certainly, the name pops up periodically when we need to use its airspace for a bombing run, but apart from flying carpets, extremely strong coffee and men with inordinately large mustaches how much do we really know about this remote and fascinating land?
Not a lot, I'd venture, so it's most gratifying to be able to report on the opening of the first Turkish establishment, not just in the city, but in the entire state. Bosphorus brings a little slice of Turkey to the Southside of town - a welcome addition not only to the city's thriving ethnic culinary scene, but also to the former culinary desert that starts at South Street and spreads pretty well uninterrupted all the way to Greenwood. Occupying the space formerly known as Faux Real Pizza, Bosphorus is now the third ethnic eatery to have sprung up on this stretch of East Street in under a year. (The other two are the excellent Don Victor's and an anonymous Tex-Mex taco joint. The corner gas station doesn't count, even though it sells donuts.) This is great news for Southside gastronauts on a budget.
On the night of a recent visit, my friend Amy Lynne and I were amongst a handful of non-Turks in the main dining room. As the only restaurant of its kind, it's inevitable that Bosphorus is going to become something of a focal point for people of that nation. A silent TV set played wall-to-wall coverage of various terrorist atrocities in the Arab world. Frankly, I found the dispassionate and unflinching Turkish news coverage both distracting and irresistible, much to the annoyance of my dinner date. Perhaps the TV in the dining room is a bad idea. The restaurant's dÈcor, unchanged from its former incarnation, is a stylish and inviting combination of hardwood and skillful paintwork. A few Turkish rugs and posters from the Old Country tell us we're in Turkey. The overall impression is of warmth and comfort, despite the howling wind outside and the constantly opening front door.
With almost a dozen appetizers and even more main courses, the menu at Bosphorus has something for just about anyone. There are several meat-free dishes, so vegetarians shouldn't have any trouble finding something to their taste. Deciding to start with a few classic appetizers, my friend and I began with the humus ($3.95), stuffed grape leaves ($4.95), mushrooms ($5.95) and artichokes ($4.50). The humus, light and creamy with a hint of tahini, was less garlicky than I would usually like, but all the more sociable for that. The stuffed grape leaves provided a crisp bite of minty freshness, and were quite impressive. The mushrooms, which are served hot in a small crock with mozzarella, red peppers and tomatoes, were somewhat Italianate in preparation, but satisfying, nevertheless. The only disappointment amongst the appetizers were the artichokes, which were served cold in a rather lackluster "house sauce" containing, I think, oil, lemon juice and, to judge from the blandness, water. Although the salads looked quite interesting, we decided to skip them and move straight on to the main courses.
The menu at Bosphorus is heavy on kebabs, including the classic doner and shish varieties. The doner is very similar to the Greek gyros, being reconstituted lamb and beef cooked on a vertical spit and sliced thinly. This is served either with rice and vegetables for $9.95, or as a sandwich in pita bread for $7.50. Opting for something a little different, we settled upon the chicken kebab ($10.95), the Adana kebab ($10.95) and the eggplant moussaka ($8.50). Despite the fact that the side dishes are largely uninspired (boil-in-the-bag-style rice and a couple of tomato wedges), both the kebab dishes were very impressive. The chicken, four large chunks of breast meat, was exceptionally tender and juicy, with a slight char from the grill. Even better was the Adana kebab, which consisted of two generous hunks of lamb and beef patty grilled on skewers. The savory, almost gamy, lamb blends nicely with the tender, lean beef to create a flavor and texture sensation that is unusual but thoroughly more-ish. The only disappointment amongst the entrÈes was the moussaka, which was somewhat short on meat and long on baked sweet potato and bÈchamel sauce. The texture of this dish was spongy and not especially appealing.
Desserts at Bosphorus are something of a highlight. We sampled an evidently house-made Baklava, which was a lot less sticky and decidedly more nutty than the industrial standard. Also tried was the exceptional milk custard, a thick, firm slab of the stuff folded over on itself and served with a light syrup. This was very fine, as was the coffee-flavored crËme caramel. Unfortunately, they had run out of rice pudding, which I have heard is quite excellent. Rounding out our meal was a cup of Turkish coffee, complete with tongue-coating sediment. Although maybe not as strong as espresso, this coffee has a distinct smoky character that is quite intriguing.
On the night of our visit, the restaurant was packed to the rafters, with a long line at the door. This may have explained a few inconsistencies in service, such as a failure to refill water glasses. With tea at $1.75, I would have expected a pot instead of the 3-ounce glass that was presented and then not refilled. In addition, our server informed Amy Lynne that, no, she could not have milk for her tea, because in Turkey it is consumed "bare." Let us not forget that, while the customer may not always be right, they are, after all, the customer. Otherwise, no complaints.
Although we do not offer a star rating for value, I feel that Bosphorus deserves high marks in this department. With a three-course dinner for two at around $40, this is one of the better deals in town. Forget the fact that this restaurant is on the Southside of town, and treat yourself to some solid, authentic Turkish cooking. You'll be glad you made the trip.
Hear each Friday morning at 9 a.m. on WXNT-AM, 1430.