Restaurant review: Cafe Istanbul

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Keeping track of local Turkish restaurants can be akin to trying to count the circles made by a whirling dervish. Suffice it to say that the defunct Turkish Cuisine on the OSU campus (where Sage now is), Cafe Shish Kebab on Bethel Road, and Cafe Istanbul at Easton have all swapped and/or shared owners. And they've all served some very very good food, too.

But since Cafe Istanbul in many ways is the granddaddy of them all, I thought I'd check out its current condition. After several excellent meals there, I can confirm Istanbul is moving sure-footedly in the right direction.

Through the changes, Istanbul's appearance has stayed the same, and that's a good thing. So there's still the oversized, dramatic twin chandeliers radiating out in rings of droopy lights. And the striking, orange and yellow striped paint job decorating arcade archways is still in place, too - as are prettily patterned plates and rugs hanging colorfully on walls. Music-wise, the occasionally hypnotic tunes sound like they came straight from the souk.

Ditto for the terrific food. Starter-wise, I liked all of Istanbul's homemade soups and really refreshing salads, but if you've got a group with you - or just eat like me - you must try the outstanding appetizer sampler ($17).

It's a huge and hugely delicious segmented wheel of dips and salads, including spicy ezme (like a minced, nutty and minty Turkish salsa); thick and tart haydari (great homemade yogurt with walnuts, mint and garlic); rich, sweet and tangy Soslu Patlican (fried eggplant in tomato sauce, and a personal favorite); one of the best taboulis in town; plus other healthy and beany things.

And I loved the wafer-thin flatbread "pizza" called Lamacun (with a racy ground lamb mixture) as either an appetizer or main course. My beauteous and bounteous order was three extra-large, super-thin and crispy homemade sheets delicious when eaten like slices, but even better rolled like a burrito around the provided accompaniments of a parsley and onion salad plus squeezes of lemon. Awesome.

If you're a cookout fan, but not in the mood to do it, let Istanbul take charge - it makes killer kabobs. Served with actually flavorful rice and sometimes a nice little salad or not-complete-afterthought sauteed veggies, they're all here and they're all good - lamb, beef, chicken, you name it.

For something grilled on the lighter side, check out the delectable swordfish kebabs. Tender and juicy inside, they had an attractive exterior sear and their mild marinade married perfectly with the flavors of their skewer partners of peppers and onions.

More earthy flavors came from the Iskender Kabab ($18). It was a mammoth serving of doner kabab (wonderful homemade gyro meat) layered above diced and crispy fried house bread swamped in great yogurt and topped with a zippy tomato sauce.

From the lineup of lovely desserts and kind of keeping with the cookout theme, I recommend the Kazandibi ($6). It was a delicate milk custard sprinkled with cinnamon and bearing a deeply caramelized crust that tasted like a flame-scorched marshmallow.

Cafe Istanbul

3983 Worth Ave., Easton



Cuisine: Turkish & Mediterranean

Price: $$ ($10-$20 per person)

Patio: Yes

Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday