Turkish delight

Gonul’s J Street Cafe

3839 J St.
Sacramento, CA 95816

(916) 457-1155

Gönül’s is one of those restaurants that I’ve passed dozens of times but never tried. It’s an appealing and typically bustling scene, though, so on a recent evening I decided to visit it. We walked over, as it’s not far from my house, and found it almost full. The crowd included a plethora of guests bearing birthday presents for one party or another, young almost-punks who looked like they’d strayed from Midtown for an early dinner, an elderly gentleman dining alone and everything in between. The hostess, welcoming to a fault, whisked the “Reserved” sign from our table and left us to study the menu.

It’s an interesting one, requiring a careful look to choose from the very different dishes. The base is Turkish—as is owner Gönül Blum—but there’s a lot of California cuisine and pan-Mediterranean flair thrown in as well. The Turkish-inflected dishes, however, are what sets the place apart from the crowd of other Euro-bistro restaurants. You’ll find things like spicy eggplant risotto or ahi-tuna Niçoise salad alongside zekiye (a stuffed Turkish pizza) or spicy Turkish-style chicken scaloppini with apricots, dates and currants. Dishes that look like they might be strictly European, like steamed mussels or panzanella, have touches—like Maras pepper broth, or olives and feta cheese respectively—that move them to the East.

We started out with those mussels, to which the tomatoey, zippy broth added a distinctive flair. Its slightly tangy piquancy was enhanced by almost-crunchy slices of leek, contrasting with the plump shellfish. Our only regret was that we had polished off most of the delicious, focaccia-like flatbread that arrived when we sat down; it would have been perfect for dipping in the broth. We asked for more, but the servers were busy, and it never came.

Our server warned us that the Gönül’s salad was big, and it was, but it was worth ordering. It had a thick, oily and copious citrusy dressing coating baby greens; chunks of excellent peaches; roasted almonds with a lightly candied coating; and thick, meaty shards of prosciutto. Normally I like prosciutto best in its silky, thin-sliced incarnation, but here the chewy pieces added a rustic charm.

My entree was also enjoyable, if not exactly pretty: snapper over softly smoky grilled eggplant, with chunks of tomato, olives and capers, and preserved lemon. (At least, preserved lemon was listed on the menu; I didn’t encounter any identifiable pieces, but the dish had an overall tangy flavor that was very appealing.) The fish was cooked just right, and the accoutrements made the flavor lively and different. The eggplant’s handling showed that we should all just leave the cooking of eggplant to Mediterranean cooks, who really know what they’re doing when it comes to that sometimes-recalcitrant item.

My husband’s zekiye, listed on the pizza section of the menu side by side with more familiar items, like a pizza margherita, was a stuffed round with a very tasty potato, herb and cheese mixture inside. The crust was crisp without, soft inside and topped with excellent, minty hummus and a tumble of the ubiquitous olives, plus some feta. It was unusual and very good. I think I foresee a walk to get one of my own for lunch in my future.

The dessert menu displays the same mix of cuisines found elsewhere on the menu, with everything from house-made baklava to espresso crème brûlée. We compromised on an apricot-almond cake, stuffed with succulent marzipan and topped with lots of lovely whipped cream, plus slices of fresh apricot and a sprig of real fresh peppermint. (The menu mentions, in the descriptions of some dishes, that some produce comes from Gönül’s garden, and I suspect that’s the origin of the mint.) The cake itself was a bit dry and dense, making me wish I were having it with coffee, but the flavors were very nice.

Unfortunately, we felt a bit rushed through this little treat, as the server slapped down our check just seconds after bringing the cake. The weakest point in our meal was service, though I suspect that this was unusual. As mentioned, the hostess (who also jumped in to clear the occasional plate) was very gracious, and we also had a shyly friendly busboy assiduously filling our water glasses. Our server, however, was offhand and brusque; indeed, he seemed to resent our presence. When my husband found himself without a fork (it had been cleared with his appetizer) and requested a replacement for eating his entree, 10 minutes went by before it arrived with a muttered apology. (Luckily, the zekiye was easy to eat with one’s hands.)

I’d guess somebody was just having a bad night, for the restaurant feels hospitable and personal, with roses from somebody’s garden on every table in addition to the distinctive, tastily iconoclastic menu. We’ll head back—I’ve heard great things about Turkish breakfasts, and I want to sample the brunch menu—and will hope for better things from the service next time.