Do you believe in restaurant graveyards? You know, presumably doomed locales that housed the last suppers of multiple expired eateries? Personally, I loathe giving credence to pseudo-theories, but certain addresses have track records that have a whiff of a curse about them. Take, for instance, the edifice at 6125 Riverside Dr.
Hugging the Scioto on a foresty riverbank, it’s a handsome lodge-like building whose gloriously scenic patio provides a riparian feast for urban-sore eyes. And yet the list of looked-like-they-found-their-niche-there dead restaurants who’ve called this site home leaps out at you: La Tavola, Cabo Cocina and Gibby’s. OK, now bury any bad vibes somewhere else, because the Cafe Istanbul that now resides here has so much going for it, I believe it can break the perceived curse.
Along with a vacation-y mood supplied by its top 10 patio, this Istanbul (there are branches in Easton and Bexley) has a roomy and dramatic interior with massive chandeliers, sometimes trancy Turkish tunes (sometimes played live on Fridays), a hearth, decorative plates and rugs on pale yellow walls, and splashes of red that pop against a prevalence of wood and stone. And then there’s the food — which pairs well with Istanbul’s why-the-hell-not? Turkish wines (about $7/glass) and is healthy, fresh and generally addictive. Since at first glance many dishes can appear pricey, I’ll describe some relative bargains.
High on the cost-cutting list are Istanbul’s full-sized-starter-entree-and-dessert-combo meals (chosen from a large portion of the big menu) available Sunday through Thursday. These feed-two-huge $22 feasts might begin with a rich-yet-tart Turkish tzatziki called caciki (pronounced “jajiki”) fashioned with homemade yogurt; a nutty and spicy relish (ezme); three chubby, sweet and savory, pine nut-and-raisin-stuffed grape leaves; or — my favorite — a stewy tomato-based, ratatouille-like mosaic of sweetly roasted eggplant, peppers, onions and plenty of olive oil (i.e. “eggplant with sauce,” aka saksuka, and for etymology buffs, pronounced like the Middle Eastern egg-and-tomato dish).
If picking the latter, you might stick with an aubergine-and-tomato theme by enjoying the mammoth and ridiculously delicious Sultan’s Favorite main course ($17 a la carte). Atop a base of pureed smoked eggplant that could almost pass for mashed potatoes was a sorta cacciatore starring remarkably tender lamb chunks.
If targeting Istanbul’s expertly grilled entrees, the Kebab Combination ($18 a al carte) offers, along with top-notch rice and a celery-heavy veggie medley, a mix-and-match twofer. Try the Doner (superior gyro-style meat) coupled with sausage-y Adana.
Desserts complete the $22 deal, and you certainly can’t go wrong with Istanbul’s dense, flaky and pistachio-rich homemade Baklava ($7 a la carte). If you’re a wiggly custard fan like me, though, I recommend Istanbul’s milky, cinnamon-scented, burnt sugar-crusted and raisin-sauced Kazandibi ($6 ala carte). Either goes down great with a freezing shot of ouzo-ish Raki ($7) presented in a decorative little ice bucket.
In addition to these three-course deals, good value arrives via Istanbul’s feeds-two, awesome Lahmacun ($15; pronounced lock-mah-uh-zhoon). Eat that trio of crinkly toasted, sorta-lamb-chili-smeared, flatbread pizzas by squirting on lemon and garnishing with parsley, greens and seasoned onions — then rolling up like cigars and chewing with delight.
Also pizza-ish are Turkish pides (think open-faced, skinny calzones). I liked the bready envelope of Istanbul’s glossy-rimmed Seafood Pide (shrimp, tilapia and scraps of swordfish, $17), yet thought a different “topping” — say soujouk (spicy sausage, $15) — would merge better with these pides’ mozzarella. But savvy diners like us trying ever more dishes from this alluring menu is only gonna help keep this deserving place alive.
Photos by Tim Johnson