World class, at last

Istanbul Bistro

Istanbul Bistro

3260-B J St.
Sacramento, CA

(916) 449-8810

I know embarrassingly little about Turkey and even less about its cuisine for someone who claims to know about food. Luckily, neither I nor the rest of Sacramento have to yearn to be world class. The city boasts a spectacular variety of restaurants and international eating options.

Istanbul Bistro, a newcomer to the J Street strip mall that once housed Formoli’s Bistro and Vanilla Bean Bistro, has only been open for approximately two months. Turkish chef Murat Bozkurt and brother Ekrem co-own this paean to their homeland.

The restaurant is open six days a week for lunch and dinner with Ekrem usually at the front of the house, infusing the small space with welcome cheer. He seats, serves and chats up the guests with unfailing warmth. He presents the menus with a flourish.

Turkey, once the center of the Ottoman Empire, was influenced by its former member states. Accordingly, Turkish cuisine includes aspects of Greek, Moroccan and Middle Eastern flavors. The menu descriptions sound more familiar than you might expect.

The appetizer combo plate offers an impressive sampling. Acili ezme is a chopped, slightly spicy mixture of tomatoes, cucumber and walnuts that’s delicious paired with the accompanying thickish flatbread wedges. Haydari (labne) is another revelation, like minted cream cheese, although it’s made of drained silken yogurt. The sigara boregi are fingers of feta-filled crisp pastry dotted with parsley. Other components include falafel, hummus, baba ganouj (especially smoky) and dolma. The latter is a bit soft, but tastes great with the ezme.

For entrees, the manti are a specialty listed as “Turkish pasta,” and they somewhat resemble fat ravioli. Stuffed with ground beef and served with a generous portion of yogurt and tomato sauce, they are quite tender, but not particularly inspired.

Better is the borani, a lamb stew with garbanzos, carrots, potatoes and currants (instead of the apricots listed on the menu). Presented in a huge bowl over couscous, the meat is very tender, while the veggies arrived nicely al dente. Unlike an Irish stew, this one is lighter and zestier.

The dish we ordered as a concession to the child present at our table ended up being the very best. The chicken shish plate (souvlaki) consists of two skewers of marinated grilled chicken, an outstandingly flavorful bulgur pilaf (who would have guessed?), and a perfectly cooked side of vegetables. The chicken was so moist and succulent that it was quickly eaten by the adults present.

While beef and lamb are amply represented on the menu, there are also quite a few choices for vegetarians, including Turkish flatbread that’s served topped like pizza, with spinach and feta or mozzarella and egg. There are also eggplant options in dishes such as the imam bayildi and veggie casserole.

The wine list is small but varied, with two Turkish red wines on offer. Ekrem Bozkurt described the Yakut as “like merlot,” and indeed, it was—nice, but not exciting. More interesting was the Selection Kirmizi, which was reminiscent of a zinfandel and more complex.

In lieu of a dessert menu, Bozkurt displayed photos of the options on his phone, a clever and homey touch. The rice pudding is baked in a small crock and is a lighter, eggless version of the kind usually found in the United States. The kunefe is a disc of shredded phyllo surrounding goat cheese, baked until golden and soaked in a sugar syrup. Crisp roasted pistachios top it. The sweet and salty interplay are interesting, but it’s quite sweet.

The Bozkurts have clearly thrown their hearts into this venture, and the bistro radiates affection for their native cuisine and culture. It’s a place where you can feel like part of the family and pass around the generously sized plates of comforting food.