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The New Wave of Turkish Restaurants in America

The New Wave of Turkish Restaurants in America

The empire strikes back.

Fans of Jason Goodwin’s popular Yashim crime novels know that the titular 1830s secret agent does more than just bust up government conspiracies. The guy can cook. Goodwin’s new book, Yashim Cooks Istanbul, highlights the hero’s hobby while helping home chefs unlock another mystery: Turkish cuisine. The globally influenced grub is historic—many of its recipes can be traced back to the Ottoman Empire—but it has started to make inroads stateside, thanks to Goodwin and a few inspired eateries trying to nudge Sultan’s Delight into the mainstream. 

Until recently, it was a lonely time for Boston’s Oleana, which has been singing the praises of Turkish food for more than a decade. “It’s a cuisine that straddles East and West,” says chef Ana Sortun. “There are many influences from China, Russia, Armenia, Greece, and the Middle East. The use of spices is what sets it apart from the rest of the Mediterranean.” Fittingly, her elegant menu of grilled meats and fish boasts ingredients like za’atar, cumin, and sumac—the backbone of many Turkish dishes and a new draw for diners.

Other Turkish spots have followed. “Europe already has Turkish restaurants on every corner,” says Washington, D.C., restaurateur Hakan Ilhan, noting that America is playing catch-up. He’s on a mission to change that with his recently opened Ottoman Taverna, which serves traditional fare like pideler (flat bread topped with cheese and ground meat) in a swank setting more in touch with the 21st century than the 14th. Meanwhile, New Yorkers can swap their beloved bagel for a wider, flatter variation called a simit at Simit + Smith—if hummus isn’t your jam, you can even top it with salmon and cream cheese. And Prime Cutts, which opened last year, could very well become the Turkish Chipotle with its fast-casual model and Istanbul-inspired wraps and bowls. 

The new wave of Turkish restaurants mostly showcases the cuisine without reinventing it. Still, while it’s doubtful that Yashim ever made anything like Oleana’s cinnamon-spiked aioli, that treat—along with simit with cream cheese and lox — certainly tastes like a classic. 

If Turkish cuisine’s American moment has been a long time coming, it’s been totally worth the wait.

Life Beyond Doner—Three more Turkish classics you should be eating:

Adana kebab: Doner is meat sliced off a spit, but you can get this ground-lamb kebab (a popular street food in Turkey) on a skewer fresh off the charcoal grill.

Börek: A crispy pastry shell made of phyllo dough and filled with goodies like feta, spinach, potato, and sometimes minced meat, this old-school Turkish dish dates back to the Roman Empire. 

Hunkar Begendi: More commonly known as Sultan’s Delight, it consists of lamb ragout served over an eggplant sauce that’s basically baba ghanoush’s creamier cousin.

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Jeffrey Urquhart