Who knows how food fads come and go? One year everyone is going out for sushi (and a thousand Japanese restaurants open in response). The next year it's Thai, and recently we've seen old-fashioned steakhouses come back into vogue. We've also heard that Turkish cuisine, an appealing blend of already familiar Greek and Middle Eastern traditions, is the next big thing. Maybe, maybe not. One thing we do know for sure is that a Turkish restaurant is a great new business in North Oakland.
Like many good ideas, it started small. Coskun Gokalp opened Istanbul Grille less than a year ago in the little dining room next door to -- in fact, attached to -- Chief's, one of Pittsburgh's famed "dive" bars. (Looking for the rest rooms? They're in Chief's.) The menu proudly proclaims Gokalp's commitment to freshness: Everything is made fresh daily by hand, and nothing is ever canned or frozen. In the rear is a deli display case filled with tempting platters of salads and skewered meats. The restaurant is subtitled "Turkish Fast Food," but unless you've come for take-out, have a seat; there is table service, as likely as not by Gokalp himself.
We began with hummus that was perhaps the best we've ever had. Unlike some versions of this classic puree of chick peas, tahini, olive oil, lemon and garlic, Istanbul Grille's was neither grainy nor sharply garlicky, but smooth, creamy and balanced in flavor. Even better, it was served with superlative pita, hot and crispy outside, airy inside.
A pair of cold bean salads rounded out our appetizers. One, a mixture of red kidney beans, potatoes, carrots and onions in tomato sauce, was hearty and autumnal, with a flavor reminiscent of Italian minestrone. Three-bean salad, being uncooked and scattered with fresh herbs, had a more refreshing and summery character.
There are many kebab options, so Jason sensibly tried them all, thanks to the mixed-grill platter. Lamb and chicken were both superbly charred; the chicken in particular was moist yet firmly meaty. Beef was tasty too, but slightly dry within. Alongside the chunks of meat were chicken and lamb patties, whose tender herbed interiors contrasted wonderfully with their crusty exteriors.
Although meat and chicken dishes comprise the lion's share of the entrees, vegetarians will find a small section of the menu set aside for them. It was from this list that Angelique ordered her entrée of zucchini pancakes. Fresh zucchini was grated and mashed with herbs, formed into two large patties, battered and fried until it achieved a coating so crispy it would make the Colonel blush. The flavor was vegetal yet savory and just salty enough that creamy, tangy yogurt sauce was the perfect foil. Rice and orzo pilaf, served alongside, rounded out this substantial entrée.
Our primary disappointment in Istanbul Grille was that, owing to Gokalp's made-fresh-daily ethos, some seldom-ordered dishes on the menu were not available. So please, City Paper readers, we beseech you: Go to Istanbul Grille and order the meat pies! If Turkish food is indeed to be the next big thing, it's up to us to create demand. With Istanbul Grille in the lead, that shouldn't be too hard.