The eastern Mediterranean is the Lascaux, the Bethlehem, the Cooperstown of food. It was here that animals were domesticated and crops were planted for the first time. As a result, the concept of villages and kitchens and written recipes evolved and spread throughout the known world. Turkey, Greece, Egypt, and their neighbors developed their own unique culinary traditions, but cross-pollination and the basin's communal ingredients (lamb, mint, sumac, sesame seeds, chickpeas, lentils, bulgur, olives, pomegranate, pistachios, yogurt, eggplant) united these disparate cooking styles into the cuisine we know today as "Mediterranean." And although the region's gastronomical evolution has been going on for 8,000 or 9,000 years, it's not over yet.
Troya applies what you might call the West Coast tarting-up treatment to the ancient cookery of the birthplace of civilization. Although this treatment, as applied to restaurant food, dates back to the early '90s and the rise of sponged-terra cotta interior design, the concept didn't really take off until this millennium, when Southern restaurants started stirring nasturtium butter into their grits, and the unwary pizza-lover occasionally discovered seared purple basil amid the mozzarella and anchovies. Executed with flair and balance, tarting up is a perfectly viable example of culinary evolution, combining California's affinity for freshening and lightening with its unalloyed pleasure in showbiz. With Troya, Mediterranean food (emphasis on Turkey) gets the tarting-up treatment, and if some of the dishes have lost their old zip in the process, many others seem positively invigorated.
Take dolmas, an old favorite found in various forms from Tehran to Baghdad to Istanbul to Athens. Troya's version upends tradition by downsizing the stuffed grape leaves from corpulent cigars to slender cigarettes, filling them with spiced minced lamb instead of starchy rice, and (the master stroke) grilling them instead of simmering them. Drizzled with a tart pomegranate molasses and served on a bed of nutty sesame-seed tahini, the dolmas were a sweet, smoky delight. They're just one of the menu's 18 varieties of meze, the Middle Eastern version of tapas or antipasti. Another finger food, feta cheese cigars (more cigarettes, actually), weren't as complex as the dolmas but were equally fun to eat. The warm pastries came with a bowl of honey and a mound of pulverized pistachio nuts for dipping and coating, and the sweetness and the crunch added a new dimension to the flaky filo and molten feta. Another cheese dish, grilled slabs of tough, brined, unripened halloumi, was unexciting, but the crab cake-sized zucchini fritters were a treat — crunchy on the outside with a rich, moist filling of shredded zucchini and spices, served with bowls of yogurt and a golden-green, minty dipping oil. Best of all the mezes was the fish baked in parchment, in this case a perfectly moist and tender filet of petrale sole all wrapped up with garden-fresh spinach and tomatoes, braised sweet onion, and slender rounds of lemon: a light, fresh summertime treat.
The balance of the menu is made up of a few kebabs, flatbreads and "larger plates," but they aren't as interesting as the mezes. The roasted eggplant and ricotta flatbread with sweet peppers was nothing special, while the grilled vegetable kebab was a healthy if unexciting platter of skewered, grilled squash, zucchini, mushrooms, onions and peppers somewhat redeemed by its bed of creamy bulgur salad and a piquant parsley-green dipping sauce. Moussaka, the traditional Middle Eastern casserole of layered eggplant and spiced lamb (in this case, beef), was beautifully presented in a burnt-red earthenware pot, nutmeg-scented béchamel toasty and burbling on top. But while the dish was satisfying, it lacked that zip and zest one equates with the eastern Mediterranean. The manti were a better bet. These marble-sized dumplings — similar to Russian pelmeni or Nepalese momo — have tender casings wrapped around a rich, herb-ribboned minced-beef filling and were especially tasty with its drizzle of paprika butter and puckery yogurt afterbite.
The star of the dessert menu was the baklava, dense creamy cakes of filo, pistachios, and honey served with a scoop of gelato-chewy vanilla ice cream. Kunefe, a round of tough, stringy melted cheese the size of a small pizza with a topping of toasted, shredded filo dough, was left mostly uneaten. But the rice pudding was essential comfort food, warm and soothing with a bit of a bite and a big spoonful of tart whipped yogurt cutting the sweetness nicely.
The wine list features three dozen vintages from France, Italy, and California as well as Greece, Lebanon, and points east; the Cankaya, from Turkey's Anatolian region, was reminiscent of a buttery chardonnay, while the Kavaklidere Yakut had the bite and lift of a spicy pinot noir. Both made a pleasant complement to the meal. The two varieties of Turkish Efes beer (pilsner and dark) were unremarkable, but the brewed-to-order Turkish coffee was worthy of the country's caffeine-centric heritage. Specially roasted and pulverized beans were steeped in a long-handled jezve and served, grounds and all, in tiny, elegant demitasse cups; the resulting brew was rich and intense with a unique granular texture and a pronounced burnt-sugar afterglow.
Chef Philip Busacco opened this particular Troya in late April (another Troya, at Fifth Avenue and Clement, has been around for six years), and it has the sleek, exposed-brick look of your basic 21st century casual-upscale urban eatery. The long, narrow, high-ceilinged space is simply decorated with a bouquet here, a poster-sized photograph there, and the blond-wood communal table up front and 10-stool marble-topped counter toward the kitchen complement the establishment's fun, friendly vibe. It's a fine setting for a group of friends, a platter of mezes, and a bottle of good Mediterranean vino.