Until recently, most of the Turkish restaurants the Underground Gourmet frequented had less in common with Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent’s thousand-cook-strong Topkapi Palace than with its New World successor, Suleiman the Plodder’s Bargain Basement (fluorescent lights, the usual kebab suspects, second-rate pizza, and cheese steaks to pay the rent). Lately, though, some of our favorite East Side Turkish places, including Tarabya (formerly Gyroland) and Ali Baba, taking a cue from the standard-bearing and relatively posh Turkish Kitchen, have spruced themselves up, adding a touch of Topkapi panache to their décor. Following this trend, the owners of Sahara Grill, the bare-bones 24-hour garment-district gyro joint, have branched out with Sahara’s Turkish Cuisine, a bona fide restaurant with tablecloths, candles, and a kitchen that on two early visits proved itself a serious contender for the title of best Turkish restaurant in the Kips Bay–Murray Hill vicinity. Of course, cushy red velvet window-seat banquettes and embroidered footstools don’t come cheap. But considering the almost obscenely generous portions, dinner here is a steal. Start, of course, with meze – fresh grape leaves stuffed with rice and pine nuts; acili ezme, a fiery, olive-oily dice of tomato, hot pepper, walnuts, onion, and garlic; and the cuisine-defining vegetable, eggplant, in four distinctive guises (smoky, smooth, chopped, and stuffed). You can make a meal of meze ($4.50 to $6.25) along with the excellent freshly baked flatbread that washes up on the table like a puffy, sesame-crusted raft. But then you’d miss out on impressive entrées ($9.95 to $18.95) like iskender kebab, juicy slices of seasoned lamb over buttery grilled-pita croutons, the whole thing smothered in lip-smacking garlic-yogurt and rich tomato sauce. Slightly more obscure is the “special beyti sarma,” essentially an adana kebab wrap, the pepper-flecked chopped lamb wound tightly in thin pliant pita, cut in little squares, and drizzled with yogurt and tomato sauce like an enchilada. It’s all the elemental Turkish flavors Sahara Grill customers have come to know and love, wrapped up in a much fancier package.
(513 Second Avenue, near 28th Street; 212-532-7589.)