A different taste of turkey this holiday season 

"Have you noticed how many high school kids are here?" my husband Kevin asked as I reached for another grape leaf.

"Yeah, kind of strange, huh?"

Cafe Istanbul, with its Persian rugs, exotic music and regulars playing backgammon in the corner, doesn't seem like the kind of place high-schoolers would hang out. But there they were, a pack of teenage boys huddled around a low table.

"They're here to smoke the hookah," Kevin observed matter-of-factly. Sure enough, lazy curls of smoke wafted up from their table. Sophisticated kids -- we just smoked cigarettes at the Waffle House when I was in high school.

Shake your moneymaker: There are two experiences to be had at Cafe Istanbul -- one with belly dancing, one without. With belly dancing on weekends, there's a bigger crowd, louder music and a woman gyrating for tips. Most weeknights are much quieter and more relaxed. One side of the restaurant has regular table seating, and the other is plush with thick rugs and jewel-toned pillows, with diners sitting on the floor around low tables.

To be kind, I'll call the service "European-style." Expect to wait awhile before anyone takes your order, and at the end, to retrieve your check. At least the food arrived in a timely fashion.

Turkish Delight: Lamb and eggplant figure prominently on the Mediterranean menu. We started with the mezze platter, a tantalizing mix of hummus, roasted eggplant, feta and jajoukh, a yogurt dip fragrant with onion and garlic. Puffy flatbread is perfect for dipping. Grape leaves slicked with olive oil have the distinctive sourness that makes them totally addictive.

Let it Burn: Most items on the menu are at least a little spicy. Kofta, spiced Turkish meatballs, start off mellow but produce a slow after-burn. A dollop of cooling jajoukh and a spoonful of rice pilaf balance out the spiciness. A heady spice rub gives chicken kabobs a reddish-brown color and a bit of kick. Aromatic choban kavurma -- a spicy sauté of lamb chunks, onions, peppers and tomatoes -- arrives on a sizzling platter.

Novelty Item: When I saw pizza on the menu, I figured it was worth a try. We ordered the Istanbul pizza, topped with lamb, tomatoes, onions and feta. When it arrived at the table, it looked promising: cracker-thin crust, plenty of toppings. It's also huge -- two people could easily share it. Sadly, the illusion faded as soon as I reached for a slice. The thin, floppy crust couldn't support all those toppings and gooey cheese.

The moral of the story: Don't order pizza at a Turkish restaurant. But everything else at Cafe Istanbul is fair game.



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