Understanding a cuisine, dish by dish 

Istanbul Café expands Indy’s repertoire of Turkish eats

Short of a trip around the globe, nothing teaches you about a different country’s food like the arrival of an authentic new restaurant. After months of darkened storefront windows at the old Five Spice site at 86th and Ditch, Istanbul Café has finally brought the space to life and installed a menu that ranges from long familiar Mediterranean dishes and interesting twists on Turkish favorites to dishes you won’t get anywhere else in town.

Given that Indy already has a Turkish restaurant, as well as several Mediterranean and Middle Eastern eateries, comparisons are inevitable. What’s more instructive, however, is looking not for ways that the others are better but how the new place does things differently and what new things it adds to diners’ experience of a native cuisine. While some things seem perhaps a bit toned down or overly subtle, Istanbul Café easily provides enough surprises to make it well worth the trip.

For instance, among appetizers, more common items were a little humdrum while the unexpected provided some of the highlights. Hummus was timid, even a little grainy, though piping hot pita with a flavorful dipping oil was a nice accompaniment. Tabouli was also fairly straightforward, even a bit under-seasoned. An eggplant puree, on the other hand, had a distinct smoky undertone and a creamy texture with a hint of dill that had us dipping in for more. Gavurdagi ($6), a relish of deep red tomatoes with walnuts and parsley in a tangy pomegranate syrup, also provided a new experience for most of us at the table, especially with a good hit of spice from hot peppers. Zucchini pancakes ($6) with a light yogurt sauce were very delicate, if a bit oily, and quite flavorful with dill and bits of parsley. Cubes of deep-fried calves’ liver ($7) are perhaps only for true lovers of offal, tender though with a definite liver-y aroma and taste.

On two separate visits, entrées were a bit disparate in quality, sometimes tending toward the bland while at other moments packed with hearty flavors. A note on the menu asks diners not to look at the straightforward offerings as less interesting or unauthentic. Certainly, one should not equate excessive spicing, searing garlic or unpronounceable ingredients with “authentic.” Some of the simplest, easy to prepare food imaginable is just what they eat on the other side of the planet. That said, a special of lamb with an eggplant puree lacked a bit of salt, though the lamb was utterly tender. Chicken kebabs were also quite juicy and tender, though quite modestly spiced. The Adana kebab was a tad grainy in texture and without the overtones of cumin and sumac evident in some versions.

Stuffed cabbage rolls ($13), however, were especially aromatic, a bit like oversized dolmathes or stuffed grape leaves with hints of allspice. A delicious tomato sauce, as well as yogurt, made subtle accompaniments, and a nicely charred vegetable mix was quite fresh and flavorful. The Beyti kebab ($14), wrapped in a flat bread and covered with a similar tomato sauce — though not the promised mozzarella, which actually let us taste the meat more — was excellent both in texture and seasoning.

House-made desserts include a chocolate-pistachio cake, rice pudding, baklava and milk custard. Here, the baklava comes with most of its tender and buttery layers of phyllo up top and its filling of ground walnuts on the bottom. It’s rich, moist and without too much sticky honey or sugar syrup. The milk custard came with a slight skin off the bottom of the pan, rendering it less than smooth, but it was otherwise quite silky, sweet and decadent. If anything, we came away understanding another approach to Turkish and Mediterranean cuisine, as well as with a short list of new favorite dishes we’d be back to order again soon.

Istanbul Café
1450 W. 86th St.

Monday-Sunday: 11 a.m.-10 p.m.

Food: Three and a half stars
Atmosphere: Three and a half stars
Service: Four stars

Handicapped accessible

Recommended dishes: Eggplant puree, gavurdagi, stuffed cabbage rolls, baklava

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Terry Kirts

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