There are very few authentic Turkish restaurants in South Orange County, so my dining partner and I were delighted to find Istanbul Grill, which has recently opened in a strip mall in Fountain Valley just off the 405 Freeway near Euclid.
This bright, clean little spot has high ceilings and big windows that give it a pleasant feel. Black and white photos of Istanbul adorn the walls, and Turkish TV features a musical background to dining.
It's a casual place, serving halal Turkish food. Halal is similar to kosher in that the dietary guidelines do not allow pork or blood and require special preparation of meat when it's butchered.
The staff is very pleasant and friendly, and the food is very good. As my companion and I perused the menu, we nibbled on some excellent soft pita bread that we dipped in a little bowl of Turkish olive oil with sun-dried tomatoes. Everything we ate tasted so very fresh, beginning with an outstanding cold appetizer sampler.
The hummus was as good as any I've tasted. The creamy chickpea puree was perfectly seasoned with salt, garlic, tahini, lemon juice and olive oil. The especially good pita was the utensil we used to dip into the puree as well as the baba ghanoush, which was equally good.
The pureed eggplant had a smoky undertaste, enhanced with tahini and garlic. It was beautifully balanced. Grape leaves were stuffed with rice, raisins and herbs. A spicy chopped salad (ezme) was made of sweet tomatoes, onions and hot peppers, mixed with oil and herbs. It was refreshing and flavorful with a nice, spicy bite.
To cool the palate, the final offering was labne — thickened, house-made yogurt redolent of garlic, mint and dill and dotted with little pieces of walnuts. The platter would easily make a meal for two, but we had much more tasting to do.
Istanbul Grill also features hot appetizers, including calamari with walnut and garlic sauce (tarator), falafel with tahini sauce, phyllo wrapped cheese rolls (sigara borek) and sautéed liver cubes (arnavut ciger) with sweet red onions, parsley and sumac.
I ordered a mixed kabob plate, which offered four different skewers. The lamb was a bit tough and the chicken a little rubbery, but the doner kabob was wonderful. This features the thinly sliced meat that comes off the upright rotisserie, full of the flavor of the fire and seasoned with garlic, cumin and coriander.
Equally delicious was the kefta kabob, ground lamb that was a little spicy and had a bit of a crust from the grill. It was my favorite. The plate was completed with an array of very fresh, lightly marinated and perfectly cooked vegetables: carrots, celery, green beans and onions.
My companion ordered one of the house specialties, shepherd casserole (coban kavurma). Little cubes of lamb, onions, mushrooms, peppers and lots of chopped tomatoes were sautéed with garlic and herbs. We found the meat to be tough and the dish rather bland. It was our only disappointment.
Other entree options are chicken, lamb and beef sauté, served with tomatoes, onions, garlic and red and green peppers. Also available are a vegetable stew and an okra stew with lamb.
Entrees are served with an excellent rice pilaf dotted with browned orzo (pasta in the shape of rice) and full of buttery goodness. The rice was cooked to tenderness but not stickiness.
We finished the meal with Turkish ice cream and baklava. Turkish ice cream is notable for two things. It is denser in texture and melts more slowly.
We had a delicious block of light chocolate, with good chocolate flavor and a wonderful texture. Two little squares of baklava were flaky, nut-filled and honey-sweetened.
This is a charming, reasonably priced restaurant serving some excellent Turkish food, notable for its freshness. The three brothers who own this eatery are also very warm and welcoming.
TERRY MARKOWITZ was in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. She can be reached for comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If You Go
Where: 18010 Newhope St., Fountain Valley
When: 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays
Appetizers: $4.95 to $5.95
Entrées: $9.95 to $20.95
Desserts: $3.95 to $5.95
Information: (714) 430-1434 or istanbulgrillca.com