Part hookah bar/part Turkish food center/part good-time emporium, Café Istanbul has remained a centerpiece of Atlanta’s Mediterranean culinary community for some time. With my close proximity to Imperial Fez/Ibiza and Divan, and my own stash of shisha, I’ve never had much of a reason to head on up Hwy 78. Motivation factors aside, a visit was in order this past week as a group of friends were hitting the town.
Located at the outskirts of Decatur on the part of 78 identified as Lawrenceville Hwy, Café Istanbul sits somewhat unassumingly near the intersection with DeKalb Industrial. Its main competition in the vibe department is the aforementioned Imperial Fez, a Moroccan joint in Peachtree Hills. On the other hand, their food is most similar to the personal love buddy that is Café Agora. It bares mentioning that the Turkish selections at Istanbul are more diverse than they are at CA as the latter incorporates several supplemental Mediterranean fares.
The building isn’t much to look at, though there were a handful of spots on the porch. With a thoroughfare blanketing your eye all the way back to the horizon, I can’t say a seat outside is very appealing. The interior, absent of any outside views, serves as a transport to the lands of the Aegean Sea. Subtly lit and dotted with floor-seated tables, it is spacious and appropriate. It’s worth mentioning that a handful of chair necessary tables are found near the entranceway. Though somewhat rundown in comparison to its Buckhead challengers, the dim lighting and prostration possible seating makes the place ideal for some prime chilaxing. We all had a terribly difficult time turning down the onsite tarot reader. Sporting a 98% accuracy rating and some very official sounding accreditation, she certainly piqued my interest. However, after realizing that her specialty was financial/career advice, two things I have no problem screwing up on my own, I passed. I was looking for some divine help with a couple betties at the table. Speaking of entertainment, if you show up on a Wednesday evening or during non-school nights, there is some mad belly dancing – which lends itself well to a more festive atmosphere. The vid caps below should give you a better idea of what to expect:
Turkey, like nearly every country in the world, is a much more culturally diverse land than many people might first realize. Being the “jack of all trades, master of none” that I am, I’m not in any position to understand the sometimes subtle differences between the food dialects that constitute Turkish cuisine. For that matter, I’m not sure I’m in a position to comment on some of the vast differences either. Still, I have a good foundation for Turkish food on the whole and can assure you that the menu is fairly authentic.
Stuffed eggplants (karniyarik), regional meatballs (İnegöl köfte), piyaz (bean salad), börek (filled phyllo pasteries), and “Turkish gyros” (Döner kebabs / İskender kebab) are all found within. This pattern of traditional selections continues on until you come across the heading “Pizza,” a section that also includes some calzones. It would be a disservice to call this food run of the mill; however, the flavors were somewhat muted when compared with the cuisine from a handful of my other encounters.
We started with the Meze platter and an order of falafel. Mixed with several Turkish standards, the Meze platter went quick. There isn’t too much to say about it other than the items were standard preparations and concocted out of fresh ingredients. Did I love it? No. But it was certainly tasty, well prepared, and a good choice for a group of six people. The falafel were not my speed. Though they disappeared as fast as they came, I was lukewarm to them. These were particularly bland (even for falafel) and did not evoke the freshness of those sampled at Agora. While I’m fairly sure that most of the sauces, sides, and accoutrements at Istanbul are house made, the Tahini certainly gives the impression that it is … shall we say … from the tub. When you take a bland falafel and top it with tube-like Tahini, you get culinary bleech. While the flavors weren’t exciting, the chickpea patties were cooked properly. No small consideration when you remember that most places round these parts that serving falafel drop them in a fryer and leave them there until the cows come home.
Entrées came a good bit afterwards at which point our table was filled with traditional meat-centric dishes, a calzone, and one of the eggplant varieties. With an everyman to himself setup, I was left to focus on my lahmajun. The samplings of the kebob based dishes left me yearning for the deliciousness of that certain other place. However, they were better than average and wouldn’t bother me as an order.
As for the lahmajun (which can be spelled a number of ways), it was somewhat of a surprise to yours truly. In my past experiences, and from what I understand of the traditional execution, it is a Mediterranean-analogue to pizza. The bread utilized is thin in depth and the meat on top is usually, if not always, a minced lamb or beef. On most occasions, I’ve seen it sans sauce. However, I’ve also seen preparations that utilize a tomato based sauce. Other than the form factor, it doesn’t really remind me of pizza … but it is what it is.
Back on over my lahmajun , I was fairly shocked to see it show up with the meat between two layers of pita thin bread. Furthermore, the references to green peppers, onions, and lemon juice fell on “deaf ears.” Though not a requisite for good lahmajun, it’s worth noting that ingredients like boukovo were absent. What I was left with was a couple of carb slices sandwiching some minced protein. The meat was neither bad nor good. Rather, it was a helping of beef subtly touched by Turkish spices. To get any real flavor, I turned to the sideline of warmed onions which had been sprinkled with parsley and a hint of paprika. A traditional inclusion, you are supposed to lay the sides on top of your lahmajun as you eat it. If you don’t like raw onions, this won’t be fore you. As it was, this added a direction to the dish, albeit a breath-defying one. Not knowing what to do, I inserted the goods inside the quesadilla instead of on top. It went down pleasantly and would serve as a good way to ease someone into more heavily flavored traditional Turkish dishes. Yeah, I’d like mine with a little more oomph – but what’s new?
Before we head out, mind you that the hookah’s come with your choice of shisha. If the fruit flavored tobacco at CI is like any others I’ve had, I might suggest you sample the “double apple.” Though Ben was pissed that there was no single apple available, don’t let his jack-assery misguide you. 🙂
Also, the drink menu is rampant with Americanized options including wines, liquors, and mixed drinks (Long Island anyone?). I’ve also heard that they serve Raki, a Turkish staple. It’s supposedly off the menu. As for what to expect, I am unable to comment as I’ve never had any Raki. 🙁
At roughly $170 for six people … I don’t think I would call Café Istanbul over valued. However, we only had five low-brow libations, three apps, and two entrées … so you decide for yourself on that one.
This is one of those places that’s designed around the experience of eating and enjoying the company of others. As such, you won’t find a well-oiled service machine but a casually attired staff that moves with a casual pace. I did find it a bit frustrating that they took roughly 15 minutes to deliver our check, but that frustration aside, the slow paced service is clearly intentional. Whether that will jive with more American sensibilities is entirely up to the individual diner.
Though my schedule might not permit it, my virgin experience here was certainly sufficient enough to warrant further exploration. Assumption being what it is (“The mother of all fuck ups”), I’m not inclined to say that there are any real misfires on the menu. Even the falafel were passable. It wouldn’t surprise me to find some real gems as well. Still, as it stands … Café Istanbul is a solid culinary alternative given the atmosphere. The food doesn’t seem likely to blow away more discerning palates, but let’s not over think this one.
Even though it is backed by a heavier price tag, the higher quality food and nicer digs of Imperial Fez still win out in my book. However, the experiences are very similar and that’s a good thing – as this style of dining is totally awesome for group settings. To get down to brass tacks, I say hit whichever one is closer to your dwelling. Café Istanbul hits a homerun with atmosphere and the food will likely get you by without much of a complaint.
Oh yeah – the interior was way to dark for my point-and-shoot.