In all the hubbub over the Mediterranean diet, the foods of Turkey seem mysteriously underrepresented. Odd, since Turkish may very well be the original Med-rim cuisine. We think of the kebab as Afghan, feta as Greek, meze as Lebanese, tahini as Israeli, but all of these foods and flavors are integral to the Turkish kitchen. At its height, the Ottoman Empire extended from Central Asia to North Africa, and it left its culinary mark on all the cultures it touched. Or, as a sulky Greek or Syrian might say, the Turks made off with all their best cooks. Their services were required at the six-domed kitchen at Topkapi Palace, where the voracious Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent employed 1,000 chefs, even more than Drew Nieporent has under contract. A couple of their spiritual heirs have recently conquered these shores, and they are doing their utmost to show us what Turkish food really is.
You might be tempted to make some assumptions about a place that calls itself Gyroland (351 Second Avenue, near 20th Street; 212-254-3200). That it would be wholeheartedly committed to the ancient art of rotating meat on a stick and then slicing it off and stuffing it into a pita pocket, for example. And it is, to a certain extent. But despite the two vertical spits spinning languidly behind the counter, Gyroland is suffering from a mild identity crisis, torn between being purely Turkish and appeasing its neighborhood clientele of hospital workers and cadets at the police academy around the corner with Philly cheesesteak sandwiches, Caesar salads, and pizza, a particularly questionable use of the restaurant’s oven, which, thankfully, also dispenses crusty, dimpled pide and cracker-crisp flatbreads. Of course, gyro is slightly misleading: It’s the Greek word for what the Turks call doner.
Well-translated menus and wall-mounted pictures of the dishes fill in any gaps left by the friendly waitress, who apologizes profusely for her lack of English. “Enjoy,” she says, not only when she brings us our meal but at every possible opportunity: when she sets the table with silverware, when she brings us a basket of oven-warm sesame-seeded flatbread, when she refills a water glass, when she removes the plates, even when she brings us the check. This exhortation, though sweetly sincere, isn’t necessary. Given Gyroland’s obvious emphasis on meat, we’re happily surprised by the freshness and quality of the vegetable meze (though the lettuce and out-of-season tomato garnishes are woefully limp). The undisputed star of the meze platter ($7 and $14) is eggplant, which is to Turkish food what the tomato is to Southern Italian: a cuisine-defining ingredient. There’s a sublime charcoal-smoky baba ghannouj; a lumpy patlican salatasi – a parsley-packed eggplant salad, fragrant with fresh dill and lemon – and a spicy, garlicky Turkish take on caponata. Currants and mint give the rice-stuffed grape leaves a sweet, bright flavor rather than their characteristic one-note mushiness. Sigara boregi, a cigar-shaped pastry made from flaky yufka dough stuffed with feta, parsley, and scallions, and nearly greaseless, parsley-green falafel are the best hot appetizers. To avoid the common pitfall of overcooked, dried-out kebabs, opt for the iskender, or what Gyroland calls Alexander kebab ($10), an almost unbearably lush platter of thin-sliced doner kebab (the pressed meat on the spit) arranged over pita squares sauteed in butter, topped with a rich, olive-oil-enhanced tomato sauce and fresh yogurt. You’ll want to come back another time to sample made-to-order lahmacun (Turkish pizzas, as thin and crispy as Al Forno’s famous grilled pizza, topped with a savory mélange of ground lamb, tomato, and vegetables) and excellent pide (thicker-crusted, with upturned, canoelike edges), available in almost as many guises as there are toppings at Original Ray’s. Try what they call pastrami pide, which is not in fact a collaboration with Katz’s but an all-Turkish combo of air-dried beef (pastirmali, which at least sounds like “pastrami”) and mild kasseri cheese.
Speaking of Jewish food, H&H had better watch its back. Any day now, its vaunted place in the bagel pantheon is destined to be usurped by Hemsin, a new Turkish bakery and restaurant in Sunnyside, Queens (39-11 Queens Boulevard; 718-482-7998), and its excellent simit. Maybe that’s an overstatement, but any bagel connoisseur would cherish this sesame-studded ring’s chewy texture, slightly sweet flavor, and satisfying crust-to-dough ratio. Every morning, the seven-month-old bakery’s display case is stocked with enough buttery Turkish pastries and breakfast breads, or borek, to make the average New Yorker swear off cream cheese forever. But to reach these treasures, you’ll have to run the gauntlet of American cookies, buttercream layer cakes, and anomalous boxes of imported Italian chocolates at the door, a token gesture of unnecessary assimilation. Ignore the empty calories and make a beeline for the su boregi, what looks like a golden-crusted casserole and turns out to be a butter-slicked noodle pudding of sorts, studded with chunks of herb-flecked feta cheese. This, along with a cup of Turkish tea or a glass of ayran, a salted yogurt drink, seems to be the Sunday-morning breakfast of choice here. Pohca are akin to croissants, with flaky, butter-enriched dough, and kol boregi are coiled puff pastries stuffed with spinach, feta, or ground meat and eaten for breakfast and as snacks throughout the day.
If you arrive at dinnertime and the borek case is bare, focus on the lahmacuns and pides – what we like to call after-breakfast bread. The place-mat-thin crust of the lahmacun ($2) is appropriately crisp but pliant, and the richness of its ground-lamb topping is cut by a raw-onion-and-parsley garnish. The pide is available with various meat and cheese fillings; we heartily endorse the luscious beyaz peynirli version ($5.50), slathered with a mixture of feta, parsley, eggs, and butter.
Although it looks like a bakery, Hemsin is a full-service restaurant; its grilling paraphernalia is sequestered somewhere in the back of the house. But even though no lamb is to be seen swirling on a spit, the menu faithfully lists all the usual kebab suspects. Most are served over rice, but the hunkar begendi ($7.45) features a bed of unctuously creamy (that is, made with cream) eggplant purée, topped with chunks of either lamb or juicy grilled chicken marinated in tomato sauce. The name of this traditional dish translates to “the sultan approved,” and it’s no wonder. For dessert, it’s back to the pastry case for the obligatory but perfectly flaky baklava; revani, a honey-soaked spongy type of cookie; and an almond-laced baked milk pudding called keskul, which, loosely translated, means “the Underground Gourmet approved.”