Restaurant Review

Middle Eastern fare shines on menu

CorrespondentSeptember 16, 2011 

  • 3520 Hillsborough Road, Durham


    Cuisine: Middle Eastern, Italian, American

    Rating: 1/2

    Prices: $$-$$$

    Atmosphere: casual, wildly eclectic

    Noise level: moderate

    Service: friendly and attentive

    Recommended: borek, kebabs (especially lamb), chocolate chess pie

    Open: Lunch and dinner daily.

    Reservations: accepted for parties of 6 or more

    Other: beer and wine; accommodates children; modest vegetarian selection

    The N&O's critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: Extraordinary Excellent. Above average. Average. Fair.

    The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.

In Bergama's vestibule, a small couch piled with Oriental rug-covered cushions pays tribute to the restaurant's namesake, an ancient city in Turkey renowned for its carpets. On the other side of the room, an ornate brass urn reinforces the Middle Eastern mood.

But what, you wonder, are you to make of the 4-foot tall statue of Betty Boop?

Good question, and one that becomes even more mystifying when you enter the dining room and discover a decor whose highlights cover a wildly eclectic spectrum from Turkish rugs, silk tapestries and folk instruments to faux Tiffany chandeliers, a mounted deer head and a model of a fully rigged sailing ship.

It all begins to make sense when you open the menu, where you'll find a culinary potpourri to match the setting. Middle Eastern specialties, the native cuisine of owner/chef Zinner Abayhan, who was born in a small village on Turkey's Black Sea coast and opened Bergama in 2009, are worth seeking out. But to find them, you'll have to sift through the hodgepodge of American regional dishes, pub fare, pizzas and pastas she included to broaden the menu's appeal.

Head east

That's not to say that you won't find a few rewarding options among Bergama's non-Middle Eastern offering. New England-style clam chowder is chockablock with clams and richly creamy without being heavy. Chicken parmesan is the most popular dish on the menu. And chocolate chess pie, which Abayhan learned to make during her 17-year tenure in the kitchen of the Angus Barn, is indistinguishable from that restaurant's famous version. The Angus Barn also supplies the beef for Bergama's 8-ounce New York strip steak, served with baked potato and a trip to the modest but freshly stocked salad bar for a bargain $9.99.

But for every clam chowder or chocolate chess pie, there's an unremarkable fried calamari, run-of-the-mill pizza, or forgettable fettuccine Alfredo. Better to set your gastronomic GPS for the Middle East, where the selection is brief but varied enough to take you on an adventure from familiar hummus to exotic "Alabaniah style" beef liver (seasoned with cumin and other spices, battered and seared with sautéed onions, and served in a rich gravy).

Pide borek, Turkey's answer to the calzone, features a savory filling of spinach, cheese and your choice of meat (beef, lamb or chicken) baked in a large, folded-over pita crust. Unless you're sharing (or famished), count on taking home leftovers.

Dolmas, cabbage leaves stuffed with a blend of minced beef and rice, are served with boiled potatoes - a hearty combination that ought to hit the spot as the weather cools. Sometimes, the dolmas are topped with tomato sauce, and sometimes they're not. Ask for them without the sauce (or get the sauce on the side), which is rather acerbic and can overwhelm the other flavors.

You'd be well-advised to heed a couple more caution signs along the road to gastronomic adventure. If you're accustomed to deep-fried falafel, you may be disappointed in the lack of a crunchy exterior on Bergama's grilled version. And if you're thinking about ordering Abayhan's pistachio-walnut-pecan baklava, ask if it was made that day. If not, take a detour around it (crisp on day one, the phyllo pastry gets quite soggy a day or two later) and head straight for the chocolate chess pie.

Before you even think about dessert, though, you should by all means include kebabs on your itinerary. Options include beef, lamb, "Alexander" (seasoned ground beef), chicken breast and shrimp - all served with grilled vegetables (cooked on separate skewers so that all can be properly cooked), rice, pita and a vibrant salsa of diced tomatoes, cucumbers and onions.

The secret of the lamb

Best of all are the lamb kebabs, supremely tender and grilled precisely medium-rare when I ordered them. When I raved about them to Abayhan's husband, Ismael, he gave her marinade partial credit for their tenderness, then added "but you should see her work. She's like a surgeon, trimming away every bit of fat and tendon."

A dealer in Oriental rugs (so that's where they come from!), the affable Ismael Abayhan is frequently to be found in Bergama's dining room. When I asked him if he helps out in the restaurant, he said "No, I just help myself." So would I, if I could get those lamb kebabs anytime I wanted.

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