Open Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 11 p.m.; Sunday, 4 to 10 p.m. AE, MC, V. Reservations. Prices: Lunch main courses average $2.50 to $4; dinner main courses average $6 to $8. EROES of these days are in sandwiches -- spelled "gyros" despite the heroic pronunciation -- but it is difficult to find a true hero among the pretenders. All over town giant meat loaves revolve on vertical spits; cooks shave slices off their edges as the loaves brown, fold the slices into pockets of flat bread. Popular as these sandwiches are, their meaty contents mostly come from frozen factory-made loaves of ground meat, pale shadows of the real thing. So far I have found only one restaurant in the Washington area that serves its own gyros fashioned of freash sliced meats, seasoned and layered with fat to baste it as it grills. Tuesdays and Fridays at Nizam's Turkish restaurant you can sample this spit-roasted loaf of lamb and veal -- given its Turkish name, "doner kebab," here, rather than the more familiar Greek appellation. Oozing juices and dripping the fat that lards it, its slices are folded into bread with onions and tomato or arranged as a platter.
It is a big production for such a small restaurant as Nizam's with only about a dozen tables and not a lot of decorative gewgaws. Gold tablecloths and small globe lamps on them signa that this is a restaurant of some dignity, but the open kitchen replies with an informality reinforced by the easygoing dining room -- the two servers concentrate more on attending to the people than to the place, so tables are left uncleared, but patrons are never left ignored.
Besides being a nice restaurant -- cozy, friendly -- what distinguishes Nizam's is that it is Turkish. That is not, however, as importsnt a distinction as one might expect, unless you are Turkish. The food strikes the uninitiated as simply Middle Eastern. The appetizers are familiar tidbits like cheese and meat borek and stuffed grape leaves; the dips are the prevalent hummous and baba ghanouj. Main courses are primarily kebabs and lamb casserole and stew, as well as the unexpected (and un-Turkish) surf and turf, tournedos rossini, coq au vin and sauteed liver.
What you thus learn is that a lot of popular Middle Eastern dishes are of Turkish origin (here is one restaurant where you need not wonder whether you are tactless to request Turkish coffee). Otherwise, what sets this restaurant apart from other Middle Eastern restaurants in the area is that everything edible -- short of dessert -- is sprinkled with fresh dill.
Nizam's is not restaurant with standout dishes that you remember for years to come. But it has good food that wears well, inducing you to return. The Baba ghanouj is smooth and lemony, with a haze of garlic aroma. Hummous, being a similar dish with chickpeas replacing the eggplant, is presumably as well prepared, though my sample needed the sesame paste better whipped to lighten its peanut butter texture. Borek are wrapped in what seems to be homemade dough, with a piedough flakiness; their filling is anonymous, but they are agreeable. Stuffed grave leaves are indeed good, the rice and meat stuffing cooked to a near-paste, but fragrant with dill and lemon. The best of the appetizers -- except for that delicious salty kasseri cheese fried in butter -- are available as a sample platter for two, garnished with feta chese, olives and fried eggplant topped with yogurt. It is $6, and a good way to sample a range of delicacies.
A meal at Nizam's starts with warm wedges of flat bread -- pita -- and pauses after appetizers with a plate of salad -- crisp greens, onions, tomato, watercress -- ladled with a delicate lemon-sharpened creamy dressing that unfortunately must be tossed by you at the table. Otherwise, it is a particularly nice salad. Then the meal goes to a choice of a cozen main dishes. My choice would be lamb shank braised with slices of eggplant and garnished with slices of tomato, the meat soft and gelatinous as llamb shanks should be, the jucies a concentrate of lamb and tomato flavor, the eggplant permeated with the fragrances. Moussaka combines the same flavors in another form, the meat coarsely chopped and baked between layers of eggplant under a seal of bechamel and cheese. Served in its own small pottery casserole, it is rich and aromatic, marred only by excessive oil. Besides the doner kebab on Tuesdays and Fridays, Nizam's serves beef kebab and shrimp kebab. The shrimp are enormous, well-seasoned, cooked just a bit too long. Beef kebab is most interestingly presented as layers of tenderloin interspersed with yogurt, tomato and sauteed pita chunks. Its combination of flavors is delicious, but the dish comes off slightly soupy, the fried bread soggy. Sogginess also flawed a daily special of lamb wrapped in phyllo dough, and the lamb had a tired, leftover taste. Thus, beyoud the lamb shank and moussaka, one might investigate the mixed grill. Lamb chop, a fibrous but full-flavored small steak, and excellent mild kidneys are simply seasoned and capably grilled, sprindled with dill. Most dishes are accompanied by rice pilaf; the butter-infused rice is succulent.
Nizam's has a small but well chosen wine list, all the wines priced at around $8 so that some, like Chateau Greysac, are good buys, while others are slightly overpriced. Not on the list but usually available is an unusual, highly tannic Turkish red wine, but its $9.50 price is out of line with the others.
While the kitchen makes special effort with desserts, producing baklava, a rice-flour caramelized pudding called kazandabi, and pears baked with honey, none is more than passable except creme caramel -- not Turkish, but authentically delicate and fragile. Finish, of course, with thick Turkish coffee poured from your own long-handled brass pot.
No longer are neighborhood ethnic restaurants cheap. Nizam's is casual -- with waiters shouting orders into the kitchen and stopping by tables with a sample of a new dish for diners to taste -- but its main courses average $6 to $8. Appetizers are generally $2, to $3, desserts $1.25. Cinner, with wine, tax and tip, is likely to cost $15 a person. Sunch is considerably less expensive, entrees being $2 to $3 less. But Nizam's is an education -- if not an education in the range of Turkish cuisine, at least an education in what doner kebab should be.