IT'S FUNNY how quickly a nice little neighborhood cafe can work its way into your affections. Meyhane, a low-key, comfortably clannish Turkish meze tavern at the Eastern Market end of Capitol Hill, is the sort of place where the chef's baby is a welcome early evening visitor; where his folks -- all smiles and little English -- are so clearly the proud grandparents that everyone on the sidewalk smiles back; and where happy-hour rules are gently bent for regulars. (It's also the sort of place where Aykan's first birthday was widely saluted, and the progress of his recovery from a frightening run-in with a boiling kettle even more happily reported.) The food is good, sometimes surprisingly so; the world-ranging, though not lengthy, wine list is half price at happy hour, and even more ingratiatingly, the chef encourages customers to try out the nicer wines "since the price is right." There's even a belly dancer on weekends. What's not to like?
The name Meyhane (pronounced may-ha-neh) refers to the Turkish equivalent of a Parisian cafe, a meze restaurant that is as much social center as supper kitchen. It's the hospitable domain of chef-owner Dogan (pronounced Doe-an) Turker and wife Pamela Tiffen. It has no pretense to prettiness per se: The stained-glass bar back looks to be a Hill-lounge original; the kitchen -- exposed, though not in the trendy sense, just straight through in the back -- is filled with people mixing, stuffing and handing off; and the walls are hung with Middle Eastern musical instruments. (The bathrooms are not specially equipped, but fairly large; patrons with limited mobility might be able to use them.) The menu says "tapas and wine bar," which explains the grape cluster lights, and lists about two dozen of each, bottles and tapas, plus another dozen entrees. And although Americans often treat meze as appetizers, it would be well to go slow.
One of Meyhane's pleasures is its dolma filling, a blend of rice, currants, pine nuts and herbs slow-cooked together to an almost bulgarlike consistency and used to stuff tomatoes, grape leaves, slabs of eggplant and red bell peppers. These can be ordered individually -- most of the cold meze are $3.95 -- but the combo platter, for only $8.95, is easily a meal, even without the pita.
The baba ghanouj here is extremely good, smooth and happily not embittered by a cruel excess of garlic. Neither is the hummus, in which the nutty flavor of the garbanzos is just sparked by lemon. Antep, described as "Turkish salsa dip," is just about that, fresh and spanky. Shak shuka is somewhere between a veggie salad and a chunky yogurt dip. The sauteed spinach -- again, with discreet garlic -- might have actually been a darker greens because the flavor had a little swagger.
Octopus, which in traditional style was long-cooked in olive oil, had developed a confit-like texture and lost most of its flavor, a not unusual result but still a little disappointing; octopus may seem a cool character, but it responds splendidly to a little more attention. But the grated carrot salad would entice even the pickiest child, sweet and slightly creamy. And the imam bayildi was as meltingly addictive as its name ("the imam fainted") suggests, a thick, bitter-free slice of eggplant topped with a thick sauce of tomatoes and sliced onions.
Among hot meze, the lamb shish -- two skewers of four fairly good-size, moist and just-crusted bites plus rice -- is another near-meal at $6.95; the baked shrimp with sauteed veggies and a mozzarella topping at $7.95 or the chicken shish at $5.95 might be others.
Zucchini fritters, three pancakes the size of large Long Island oysters, were soft inside and crisp outside, and served with the familiar yogurt dip. Pastirma, the dried spiced beef from which pastrami descends, comes either plain, rolled up like antipasto or with mozzarella in a cigar-like borek pastry.
Entrees range from the fairly simple (grilled lamb chops with antep or grilled salmon) to the familiar (ground lamb and beef kebabs in pita, either mild or spicy). The "house special" Meyhane chicken is another heaping plate -- three boned and grilled thighs, spread with mashed potatoes and then stuffed into hollowed-out red peppers plus rice for $12.95 -- but the thin and flavorless mash killed the flavor; the dolma rice would be a fabulous substitute.
One other dish is a star, and not common here: hunkar begendi, a plateful of a baba ghanouj-like eggplant puree creamed with a little cheese and topped with braised-to-shredding lamb in the middle. It may be partly made from the shanks (which the kitchen keeps running out of), or maybe the staff keeps begging for that version, as it's a favorite; but regardless, it's real comfort food.
There are plenty of vegetarian option on the menu, and a few marked as "100% vegan," including a grilled portabello topped with sauteed artichoke hearts and such. There's also a healthful vegan compote of fruits, nuts and grains called "Noah's dessert" (perhaps it's layered out two by two). And although it may not be as Turkish as the baklava, there's no denying that the "divine" chocolate souffle smells like Paradise.
Even before Aykan's accident, Meyhane donated 10 percent of proceeds on Mondays to Children's Hospital, and now feels doubly rewarded by his treatment there. Maybe Monday could be a two-bottle night.