Back in January, when I drove by the old Pizza Hut building on Kildaire Farm Road and saw that a sign for a new restaurant called Istanbul had gone up, I have to confess that I was torn. Sure, the foodie in me was excited that a Turkish restaurant – a rarity in these parts – had opened. But the restaurant critic was wary.
In the past five years, the building has been home to three different restaurants. Add Pizza Hut, which closed around a decade ago (though the chain’s trademark architecture is still unmistakeable), and the location is starting to look like a sort of gastronomic Bermuda Triangle, where restaurants disappear, never to be heard from again. Naturally, I’m hesitant to commit a review to a restaurant that may well shut down before the ink is dry. So I bided my time.
It was the parking lot that finally convinced me to give it a try. Every time I drove by, more and more cars were parked there. This automotive version of word of mouth, I figured, was enough reason to check it out.
And am I ever glad I did. From the complimentary dish of chopped olives and peppers in olive oil that’s served with warm pide (think pita but thicker and pillow-soft, and sprinkled with black and white sesame seeds) at the beginning of the meal to the Turkish tea (also frequently complimentary) that you sip with dessert, Istanbul exudes welcome. The meal in between, you might say, is a procession of Turkish delights.
The cold mixed appetizer sampler is a painter’s palette of warm, earthy hues, from the rust and ocher of ezme salata (a zesty red pepper salad), kisir (Turkish tabbouleh) and cumin-tinged hummus to the dill-spangled white of a yogurt dip called haydari. The hot appetizer sampler is also enticing: sigara boregi (cigar-shaped savory pastries filled with feta and parsley); mercimek koftesi (Turkey’s lentil-and-mozzarella answer to cheese balls); and su boregi, a dish whose name in English translation – “boiled crust layer” – doesn’t do justice to this lasagna-like layering of phyllo, egg and feta.
If you’re not the guided-tour sort, you could instead chart your own course to an à la carte meze feast. But by all means, get the sigara boregi, which are house-made and addictive.
Patican salatasi is a worthy starter destination – a coarse-textured variation on the baba ghanoush theme with roasted red pepper, garlic and lemon juice brightening the earthy, smoky flavor of roasted eggplant. So is silk-smooth red lentil soup enriched with carrot, potato and butter, and garnished with a punctuating drizzle of red chile oil.
Lahmacun, the classic Turkish thin-crusted pizza topped with a savory melange of ground beef, chopped onion, green pepper, parsley, garlic and spices, works well as a shared starter or light entree. So do the half-dozen or so variations on the football-shaped filled pide theme. The mixed vegetable pide can be marred by a soggy bottom crust – owing, I imagine, to the juices exuding from mushrooms, tomatoes and other veggies in the filling. You’re not likely to encounter the problem with the other filling options, which run the gamut from soujouk (spicy beef sausage) to spinach and cheese.
Kebabs account for the bulk of the entree offering, with nearly a dozen variations on the theme available as either a plate (served on wedges of lavash bread to soak up the juices, and accompanied by bulgur pilaf, roasted tomato and sweet pepper, and a small tangle of sumac-spiced onions) or as a wrap with fries.
On Saturdays only, house-made doner kebab – lamb marinated with onion, black pepper and oregano, roasted gyro-style on a vertical spit, and thinly sliced to order – is offered as a special. Also offered is the Iskender plate: doner topped with a hot tomato-yogurt sauce.
Doner kebab, a prized specialty of Turkish cuisine, is a local rarity, so if you plan on indulging, be advised that they’ve been known to run out as early as 6 p.m. To be safe, plan on making it lunch or an early dinner.
Beef shish kebabs, featuring marinated center cut rib-eye, are another winning option, and they’re available all week. Same goes for Adana kebab, a spicy blend of beef and lamb molded onto skewers and slipped off onto the plate when done. Lamb chops – four of them, on the small side but juicy and flavorful – are the priciest thing on the menu, and a steal at $20.99. And if you just can’t make up your mind, there’s always the mixed grill, which serves up Adana, chicken, lamb and kofta kebab in ample portion.
If you’re looking for seafood, you’ll find the only two options down at the bottom of the entree list, just above the kid’s menu: shrimp pizza, and the pleasantly surprising patlican yataginda somon: breadcrumb-crusted, herb-marinated filets of salmon, served on an earthy bed of roasted and mashed eggplant.
The dessert sampler – five sweet-tooth pleasers, including trilece (a Turkish twist on the Mexican tres leches cake) and two kinds of baklava (traditional and chocolate) – is a tempting bargain at $9.99. The only downside is that the pieces of excellent house-made baklava are quite small. I say go with the baklava.
The wait staff is invariably welcoming and eager-to-please, though service can at times be a bit disjointed. And the setting is pleasant enough, though no amount of Turkish samovars and folk music playing in the background can quite make your forget that you’re dining in a building that was once a Pizza Hut. It’s the food that’s clearly the main attraction here.
Factor in budget-friendly prices, and I’ll wager that Istanbul is here to stay.
Note: A special fixed price Ramadan meal is being offered in addition to the regular menu through June 24. See website for details.
914 Kildaire Farm Road, Cary
Rating: ☆☆☆ 1/2
Atmosphere:Turkish samovars and folk music in a former Pizza Hut
Noise level: low to moderate
Service: friendly, sometimes disjointed
Recommended: red lentil soup, eggplant salad, sigara boregi, kebabs, pide (except vegetable), baklava
Open: Lunch and dinner daily.
Other: no alcohol; accommodates children; good vegetarian selection; patio; parking in lot.
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.