Mention Turkish food, and one of the first dishes that comes to mind for most people is the kebab. Understandably, Washington restaurateur Hakan Ilhan was concerned ahead of the opening of Ottoman Taverna in Mount Vernon Square last spring. Would diners take to a menu that went beyond grilled meat? And would customers appreciate why his kebabs cost more than the ones sold by fast-food sources?
The restaurant got an early spike in interest when Michelle Obama dropped in for dinner just two weeks after it opened for business, and more recently when the Michelin Guide awarded it a Bib Gourmand, a designation of “good value.”
To step inside Ilhan’s first restaurant devoted to the cooking of his native Turkey is to see significant thought poured into creating a backdrop that encourages leisurely dining. The entrance, for instance, is decorated with blue amulets believed to ward off the evil eye. Beyond, a long marble bar is veiled in a white trellis. The expansive dining room, meanwhile, steeps diners in Turkish design. One minute you’re admiring a mural of the Hagia Sophia museum in Istanbul, another you notice that the floor tiles channel a Turkish bath. Even the ceiling is noteworthy, drawing eyes upward with honeycomb shapes.
Your first taste is comforting. Meals commence with warm bread, freckled with sesame seeds, and a gift from the kitchen: cigkofte, a mash of cracked wheat and smoky peppers served in a ruffle of lettuce with a pomegranate reduction tarting up the dimples of the snack. The only enhancement you might consider is something original from the bar. Curiosity drew me to a Turquaz cocktail, made using beet juice and mezcal, two ingredients that sound incompatible but make merry going down. Scarlet in color and smoky in flavor, the drink is intoxicating in more than one way.
Having tried almost all the spreads at Ottoman Taverna, I declare the dips at Zaytinya in Penn Quarter to be superior. That still leaves plenty of appetizers to admire at the newcomer, soups in particular. A garlicky puree of red lentils delivers a ripple of warmth from maras peppers, revered for their fruity heat, while a bowl of thin yogurt and rice, shot through with dried mint, is basically a stuffed grape leaf in liquid form. Both soups shimmer with a drizzle of paprika oil.
The heart of the open kitchen — helmed by Istanbul native Ilhan Erkek, 33, and framed in copper pots — are its heat sources. The same wood-fired oven that issues the gratis bread produces the pide, boat-shaped pizza strewn with goat cheese, roasted tomato and arugula or crumbled lamb sausage, cheese and pickled red onions. There’s also lahmacun, which tastes like a cross between a tortilla and a cracker, spread with minced lamb, greens and cherry tomatoes.
Meat bulks up many of the main courses. Lamb, chicken and beef, alone and in combination, can be sampled in myriad forms: ground, cubed, in parts (think shanks) and thinly shaved. The last, carved from upright spits — doner kebab translates from Turkish to “rotating roast” — makes for lusty eating, as the beef and lamb are marinated for a full day in yogurt, onion juice, garlic and thyme.
The best of the lamb dishes are chops flavored by their marinade of pepper and thyme, propped up on white beans and finished with breezy mint puree that cuts through the richness. If parts of a meal here taste familiar, its because Turkish food borrows so much from other cuisines, including Middle Eastern, Balkan and Central Asian. “Grand Mom’s ravioli,” marbles of pasta stuffed with ground beef, onion and parsley, and draped with yogurt, convey the flavor profile of Afghan mantu. Another lip-smacking role for ground beef is moussaka, layers of pan-fried eggplant and potatoes enriched with bechamel: a stack like few others. Doner durum, among the lunch sandwiches, crams crisp carved beef and lamb with lettuce, tomatoes, yogurt and red onion into a Turkish burrito. Don’t plan on getting back to work if you polish off the log; messy and marvelous, it’s best followed by a nap.
Especially if you’ve paired the feast with fermented grape juice. Ottoman Taverna gives plenty of ink to wines from Turkey. One selection I tend to gravitate to is the Egeo rosé, salmon-pink, crisp and versatile enough to bridge appetizers and meats.
The dining room staff includes eight Turkish servers and busboys, but even if you get a Bulgarian or French waiter, service is warm and attentive. Only once, when my first course preceded my wine and my entree came before a flatbread, did I encounter anything less than smooth sailing. (I blame the bumps on a busy, pre-holiday crush of diners.)
The restaurant was preceded in its neighborhood by two other notions from Ilhan: Alba Osteria (Italian) and L’Hommage Bistro Francais (French). The restaurateur says he waited to do something Turkish until he could do the cuisine justice. Charcoal, he thinks, is the best fuel for cooking most kebabs, and it wasn’t until this space came along that he could get the required (extra) air shaft for ventilation. The wait was worth it, evinced by the aforementioned lamb chops and crusty meatballs (kofte, also juicy and herby).
The fact there’s a lot of the meat on the menu should keep you focused on it. The best of the deep blue sea features creamy octopus in a salad with potato coins, shaved onions and pearl couscous. A rendezvous with branzino, however, made for a bland date. And a casserole of shrimp with tomatoes, saffron and more cheese than a Lawrence Welk rerun is a slap to the seafood.
Vegetables, on the other hand, can be seductive. Carnivores won’t miss flesh in the stew called karnibahar, which packs cauliflower florets, chickpeas and sweet petals of pearl onions into a shallow casserole of vegetable broth, red with tomato paste and sour with sumac. The dish is one of those rare comforts that manage to taste simultaneously hearty and healthful, and if my life didn’t revolve around restaurant reservations, I could see making it routinely at home.
Ilhan recently recruited a baklava maker, Ibrahim Cetinbag, from Antep, widely regarded as the baklava capital of Turkey. His version of the confection, served in thick spears and rich with pistachios, is very good, sweet but not excessively so. I’m even more enamored of kunefe. Presented as a golden disc, it looks like hash browns and tastes like shredded wheat held together with unsalted white cheese, butter and anise syrup. Time in the wood oven makes for a shatteringly crisp, enormously satisfying kunefe. That and a cup of thick, intense coffee are my idea of Turkish delight.
While the scenery and hospitality suggest fine-dining territory, Ilhan says the average check for dinner runs around $45. Even better, Ottoman Taverna can be whatever you want it to be: a quick lunch, a romantic dinner, elbow room for a group — all-occasion.
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425 I St. NW (entrance on Fourth Street NW)
Open: Lunch weekdays, dinner daily, brunch weekends
Prices: Dinner appetizers $7 to $15, entrees $16.75 to $24.95.
Sound check: 74 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.