Istanbul Grill, 401 Throckmorton St, FW. 817-885-7326. 11am-10pm Sun-Thu, 11am-11pm Fri-Sat. All major credit cards accepted.
Midway through a delicious weekday-evening dinner, the restaurant’s manager made a stop at the corner table where my guest and I were sitting. With a proprietary wink, she scolded us playfully, “You must not keep sending your server back to the kitchen to ask all our secrets. Some things we must keep to ourselves.”
In our defense, Istanbul Grill had caught us entirely unawares. We had met downtown, thinking we were in for a slightly upscale version of a predictable favorite, a place where kebabs met cloth napkins perhaps but where the flavors would be a more or less known quantity. Such is the state of “Mediterranean” cuisine in North Texas these days, that the menus at Greek, Lebanese, Israeli, Egyptian, and Turkish restaurants often offer very similar bills of fare — grilled meats, hummus and feta, and eggplant and peppers arranged in various combinations, all dressed liberally with olive oil, garlic, and lemon. Reliably delicious, this regional cooking can sometimes lack nuance and rarely presents any surprises.
Meanwhile at Istanbul Grill, my guest and I were thoroughly transfixed, utterly enchanted, and gleefully perplexed by an appetizer dip. We had never tasted anything quite like ezme before — a mince of cucumbers, tomatoes, and walnuts, folded together with chile paste and pomegranate molasses, a.k.a. our mystery ingredient, a sultry and haunting reduction of the fruit’s red juices into a seductive grenadine tar. Served with a basket of toasted pita and a small dish of the kitchen’s velvety hummus, our ezme set the tone for a meal that pleasantly subverted our expectations.
Of course, we wouldn’t have known to order ezme on our own, but we’d had the good sense to ask our server for recommendations. She was more than happy to educate us on her favorite items, taking time to explain names and preparations beyond our reckoning. There are kebabs and gyros for those who prefer familiar territory, but the bulk of the menu is given over to specialty dishes unique to the Anatolian peninsula.
According to our server (who by this point we would have trusted with our very lives), hunkar begendi is a dish that originated during the early days of the Ottoman Empire. The name translates roughly to “the Sultan enjoyed it,” and it was easy to see why he would. A tender ragout of lamb tossed with smoky roasted peppers tumbled off a bed of pureed roasted eggplant into a tart stain of tomato sauce. Subtle and refined, the dish didn’t necessarily need the little beet sprouts decorating the edge of the plate to let us know we were dining on a higher plane, but they were an elegant (and tasty) touch.
In an intriguing, hearty variation on moussaka, the kitchen stacked the traditional eggplant rounds with zucchini and potatoes. With delicately spiced ground beef –– cinnamon? coriander? This time we kept our questions to ourselves –– and a fluffy béchamel, the richly layered dish seemed more closely related to a thick cassoulet than a lasagna.
We were told desserts are made in-house, and we couldn’t pass up the chance to let the kitchen charm us one more time on our way out. As we waited, we admired the tasteful build-out of the Sundance Square location, with its high ceilings and small, well-appointed bar. Though Istanbul Grill’s original restaurant in Arlington has been a favorite with locals for years, the new location represents a significant expansion for the brand, and also for the cuisine — deservedly elevated here in a manner one hopes will become more common in our part of the world.
You can order baklava from a dozen restaurants around Tarrant County, and there’s a good chance that 10 of them came from the same place. Not so at Istanbul Grill. The flaky morsels melt in your mouth while they crunch on your tongue. Alternate them with bites of kazandibi, a cooked custard with a light scald that is what flan always wants to be.
In addition to its good selection of wines and a charming staff, Istanbul Grill offers a two-course fixed-price lunch menu Monday through Friday.
Hunkar Begendi $18