Turkish cuisine is one of the most sophisticated and diverse in the world. At its peak, the Ottoman Empire included Greece, the Balkans, Romania, Armenia, the bulk of the Middle East, and most of North Africa. Ingredients and recipes from throughout the area flowed to Istanbul, where the sultan's palace had more than a thousand cooks. This diversity lives on in present-day Turkey and its various culinarily distinct regions.
Sad to say, you'd get little hint of that from visiting most Turkish restaurants in the Bay Area. Many of them are inexpensive and simple kebab houses serving hummus, baba ghanoush, borek, a few flatbreads, grilled meats. Not that there's anything wrong with that — you can eat very well indeed at, for example, Gyro King or A La Turca — but there's so much more we've been missing. It's similar to the situation with Mexican food: Tacos and burritos are great, but wouldn't it be better if we could also get sophisticated regional specialties such as chiles en nogada or duck in pumpkinseed sauce?
Troya (the Turkish name for the city of Troy), a pretty restaurant on the corner of Clement and Fifth Avenue, started out as your basic kebab shop, but a few months ago chef Randy Gannaway took over the kitchen and developed a more sophisticated and creative menu. Troya's focus on local, seasonal, organic ingredients and a mix of fairly straightforward classics and California spins on traditional dishes means you could think of it as a Turkish spin on Aziza, the Moroccan restaurant where Gannaway worked previously.
With the menus, the server brings out a basket of crunchy ciabatta and a small dish of oil nicely spiced with sumac, oregano, and mint. The menu starts with a dozen cold and hot mezes (appetizers), including a daily-changing soup. On one visit, this was a lobster bisque with a hint of sweetness from fresh fennel bulb and roasted fennel seed, one of many unexpected but delicious flavor combinations.
Braised lamb dolmas, served cool, are the best I've ever tasted, with a great texture from long-cooked meat and pine nuts and a nicely balanced sweet-sour taste from currants and a touch of vinegar. A sort of dense, starchy salad is formed with crushed bulgur with winter squash on seasonal leaves: A cold paste of wheat and squash seasoned with an Indian-tasting spice and herb mixture is shaped into cigars, placed on lettuce and radicchio leaves, and served with lemon wedges to add a little needed zip. Grilled halloumi cheese with white anchovies and thin-sliced watermelon radish are nice together, and come with a salad of little gems in a strong, herby dressing.
Troya's assortment of Mediterranean spreads, served with a big basket of warm pita, is different from the usual Middle Eastern mix. Rich, tart yogurt is flavored with cucumber, carrot, and olive oil. Hummus is exceptionally creamy and smooth, with a clean garbanzo taste. Most unusual is the red bell pepper and walnut spread. This dish is often overwhelmed by sweet pomegranate syrup, but if Troya's contains any, it's added judiciously enough that the flavors of the walnuts and peppers shine through.
Borek are hot, fat triangles of spinach flavored with pine nuts and raisins wrapped with thin, crisp, very flaky phyllo. Their slightly bland sweetness is perfectly balanced by the accompanying sharp, creamy feta dip. Hot, crunchy fried zucchini cakes with a touch of dill are served with what's described as cucumber mint aioli, but the sauce seemed to have some yogurt — regardless, it's good. Another startling but delicious combination is the calamari stuffed with a subtle mixture of goat cheese, eggplant, and spinach and served on a cannellini bean and fennel salad. Turkish flatbread (lamacun) is like a small thin-crust pizza topped by juicy, gamy meat with spices and a little tomato.
The menu continues with seven entrées, including a daily fish special. On one visit, this was perfectly seared scallops on a bed of French green lentils cooked with what tasted like shallots and broth, yet another great and surprising combination, served with a simple rocket salad.
Manti, Turkey's version of ravioli, are handmade, filled with a mix of chanterelle and shiitake mushrooms cooked al dente and drizzled with two sauces, mint-flecked yogurt and paprika butter. The shapes and colors look like an abstract painting, making this as pretty as it is delicious. This might be the best vegetarian entrée in town.
Chicken güveç is named after a special covered earthenware pot used for oven-braising various stews. While Troya's version is served in such a pot, the kitchen seems to be using a modernized technique, as the two leg and thigh pieces had nicely crisped skin. This simple chicken goes nicely with a complex braised ragout of eggplant, parsnips, olives (watch out for the pits), almonds, and spices.
The lamb kebab is probably the simplest dish on the menu: a skewer of spiced lamb and eggplant is grilled and served with rice pilaf, greens, and a little cucumber salad. However, each element is a cut above the usual kebab-house fare. The lamb is rare and juicy, the pilaf basmati is cooked al dente, the kale is barely wilted and full of flavor, and the cucumbers are bright and slightly pickled.
As a metaphor for tenderness, "melts in your mouth" is an overworked cliché, but in the case of Troya's beef türlü, a stew with cauliflower, baby potatoes, pearl onions, and greens, it's almost literally true. The slow-cooked meat falls apart with the slightest pressure of the tongue. For textural contrast, the onions and cauliflower are left slightly al dente.
Much the same goes for Troya's spin on moussaka: Long, slow cooking makes the chunks of lamb even softer than the eggplant. The custardy béchamel that binds the two makes this a rich and filling dish despite a modest-looking portion. It is very delicately spiced, if at all, so the dominant flavors are lamb and eggplant.
Desserts, though not as exciting as some of the savory dishes, are solid. Künefe, a warm pastry of shredded phyllo stuffed with fromage blanc and flavored with grapefruit and pistachio, is a soothing end to a meal on a cold night. There's also a blood-orange tartlette, a buttery tart shell with a bit of grit from ground pine nuts filled with rich citrus curd.
The wine list is exemplary. Wine director Brigitte Cullen has selected a wide range of styles and flavors both by the glass and bottle. The two Turkish wines on offer are inexpensive and good. There's also a small selection of draft and bottled beers, including Efes Pilsner from Turkey.
Troya is currently an undiscovered gem; on both my visits, the place was almost empty. This ought to change when word gets around, so you might be advised to make a reservation. Though the restaurant's Web site doesn't currently mention it, you can reserve through www.opentable.com.
Troya is making some of the best and most exciting food in town, and serving it in a particularly warm and friendly manner. Turcophiles, vegetarians, tightwads, and anyone who loves creative and delicious food should check it out while it's still easy to get a table.