How does a BYOB restaurant from the ’burbs, known for its convivial familial celebrations, not to mention killer hummus, translate to upmarket Sundance Square?
How do you say “very well” in Turkish?
The new Istanbul Grill and Bar — yes, there’s no “bring your own” here — has undergone the requisite facelift, all the design brainchild of owner Sam Sensel: There are white tablecloths, colorful Turkish glass chandeliers and a handsome mosaic tile wall, plus floor-to-ceiling windows that flood the elegant space with light, even on a recent early evening, post-thunderstorm.
But the food tastes just the same as it does at the popular south Arlington location: overwhelmingly delicious.
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Even before we ordered the mixed hot appetizer plate ($17) — falafel, zucchini fritters, and two different phyllo cigars, one with Turkish cheese called cigarette borek and one with pastrami, mozzarella and red peppers (pacanga borek) — a ramekin of mixed Greek olives was deftly placed on the table, along with a basket of warm pita triangles and a tzatziki-like white sauce, garlicky and made for drinking, as far as I was concerned. It was the Mediterranean equivalent of a mic drop: How could anyone, hungry and ready for dinner, not be impressed with this development?
The appetizers only enhanced the chewy bread and briny olives. I took a piece of cigarette borek and dipped it into the sauce, and had to keep myself from swooning: melted cheese, not unlike feta, oozed out of the crispy, fried phyllo. Could it get any better than this?
Of course. The menu spans the standard (but texturally perfect) baba ghanoush and hummus ($7) starters to Greek salads ($9) to a lovely vegetable casserole cooked in a clay pot ($16.95), but the real stars are the meat-centric dishes. There are gyro platters ($13.95), chicken kebabs (chicken shish, $14.95), and ground beef and lamb kofte ($15.95) and even stuffed ground-beef cabbage rolls ($14.95).
Two entrees in particular went above and beyond where I had ventured in Arlington. The Iskender ($15.95) had beef-and-lamb gyro slices conspiring atop a succulent tomato sauce, over crispy buttered pita bread. The meat’s richness, mixed with the light, delicate sauce, was transcendent. Also reaching these culinary heights was the lamb shank ($16.95), a gorgeous hunk, so tender it fell right off the bone. Normally, this cut can be hazardously tough, but here it was slow-cooked to perfection. All of this was served over a bed of rich, pureed eggplant, so garlicky my kids found me offensive after the meal.
Behind our table was a small, attractive U-shaped bar, whose high-backed seats were unfilled on our weekday visit. I couldn’t help but think of how ideal it would be to share a plate of baba ghanoush, pita and perhaps some other appetizer before one went to a show at Bass Hall or off on another downtown escapade.
The family behind Istanbul Grill, which is also open for lunch ($12.95 gets you a choice of appetizer and entree), is assiduous, in that they have the kitchen running with an effortless grace, yet keep the service comfortable and professional. Our server expertly quizzed my son about his favorite NBA teams — LeBron reigned in the playoffs that night on the TV above the bar — while making sure my daughter knew he hadn’t forgotten about her french fries.
When the Turkish Angora wine I had ordered was unavailable, he sold me on a lighter, but no less tasty blend, a Yakut red ($11), which tied a bow on the meal in a way my usual BYOB standby California cab at the restaurant in Arlington might not have done.
Make no mistake, this version of Istanbul Grill is different. And I’m perfectly OK with that.