Adding a Turkish note to the restaurant roundelay at 22nd Street and Guerrero
A score or so years ago, the corner of 22nd and Guerrero streets was one of the gastronomic hotspots of the city. (A score, as we will all recall from our civics class parsings of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, is 20 years.) On one corner stood, from 1989, Arnold Tordjman's eclectic and imaginative Flying Saucer, replete with neon flying saucers in the windows, while across the street was Robert Reynolds' Le Trou, which from the early 1980s offered a monthly rotation of regional French cooking. By the early 1990s, a glam trattoria called Mangiafuoco completed the triad.
But these sorts of convergences, like all magic, tend not to last too long. A city's tectonic plates shift. Both Flying Saucer and Mangiafuoco vanished shortly after the turn of the millennium, becoming (respectively) Tao Café, a handsome Vietnamese restaurant, and (after some throat-clearing) La Provence, a handsome Provençal restaurant. These successors are good restaurants, but they are not as compelling as the restaurants they replaced.
Nowhere is this shift more apparent than in the Le Trou space. The first successor was the Moa Room, which served New Zealander food. Then came the dot-com edition of NeO, with its white walls, white tables, white everything -- it was like being inside the sperm scene from Woody Allen's movie Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex. All-white was evidently a bit much, for NeO was soon reinvented along Day Glo-Cubist lines before vanishing altogether. It was briefly succeeded by a good Indian restaurant whose owner ended up moving to Dallas, but not before painting the walls red, and those red walls constitute part of the inheritance of what is now a Turkish enterprise called Tuba.
Tuba opened early in the new year and is already packing them in. In a flaccid economy, it's good to see any small business thriving, but Tuba, like its many predecessors, isn't laid out to accommodate a crush of patrons. There is no host's station or waiting area at the front; instead the door opens to rows of tables on either side and a clear if narrow path to the bar at the rear, where the staff congregates. On a crowded night, you might make it all the way back there before bumping into the host.
Why the big crowds? Part of the reason must be that the neighborhood, once edgy, is now well-to-do, and the array of restaurants (there's also a nice sushi spot just a few doors down) draws strollers who scan posted menus. If this place doesn't appeal, walk a few steps to that one or -- in the extreme -- cross the street. Tuba's prices are also gentle; even the menu's highest peaks scarcely rise to the mid-teens.
Then there's the draw of the Turkish food itself. It's Mediterranean, and eastern Mediterranean, with obvious affinities for the neighboring cuisines of Greece, Lebanon, and the Arab Middle East. It suggests simplicity, honesty, healthfulness; there is plenty of yogurt, lamb, and eggplant. At the same time, it has its own character and distinctive dishes.
The signature Turkish specialty in America might be sigara boregi ($7), cigar-like phyllo flutes filled with feta cheese and some spinach and deep-fried to a delicate, flaky crispness. When fresh, as at Tuba, their texture is wonderful; the cylinders are like edible (and still slightly molten) gold. But I found the feta's assertiveness and saltiness to be near the border of acceptability, even as softened by the spinach. They're also incredibly rich, which is a factor you have to weigh in relation to the fabulous round loaves of warm, focaccia-like bread you're brought at the outset and might have trouble resisting. (The bread, unlike focaccia, contains no oil, our server told me. But it's just as pillowy.)