A "Mediterranean affair" that leans toward Turkey and incorporates some exotic ingredients
DINE If books and movies can have subtitles, then why not restaurants? A subtitle is like a bit of extra seasoning, a way of emphasizing certain meanings, and this is particularly important at a time when restaurant names can seem increasingly whimsical or obscure.
Pera's subtitle (printed at the top of the bill and on its website) is "a Mediterranean affair," which makes it sound like a cheesy movie about poor, doomed Princess Grace of Monaco. "Turkish cuisine" would be a bit more exact, but "Mediterranean affair" certainly sounds a romantic note, and Pera does have its low-key atmospherics, especially on summer evenings when elongated twilight stretches over the north face of Potrero Hill and glints through Pera's windows.
Pera opened last November, under the auspices of Irfan Yalcin and his wife, in a space held by the Chinese restaurant Eliza's since the early 1990s. (Eliza's still exists at its longtime California Street location.) Turkish cuisine seems to be enjoying something of a boomlet around here in recent years, and why this is so is nearly as great a mystery to me as why we have so few Greek restaurants.
As it happens, and despite the long-term tensions between Greece and Turkey, Greek and Turkish cuisines are plainly related. Pera, whose menu tilts toward foods from Turkey's Aegean coast, even offers versions of pastitsio, the baked pasta dish that is Greece's answer to lasagne, and moussaka, the pastitsio-like dish of layered eggplant. But chef Muhammet Culha also turns out items I haven't seen before on Turkish (or Greek!) menus around town.
Conspicuous among these is the talas boregi ($16), whose closest relation in the American food lexicon is probably chicken pot pie. The dish arrived as a triangle of phyllo wading in a shallow pool of coconut curry sauce (I had never before come across coconut milk in Turkish cooking). Within the pastry envelope was a piece of smoked, boneless chicken breast, while elsewhere on the plate lay a garnish of green apple, sliced thin, and some currants. In a sense, this dish was the philosophical opposite of that other great Mediterranean cuisine, Italy's. The Italian kitchen emphasizes simplicity, directness, and the primacy of a particular ingredient or seasoning. By contrast, Pera's talas boregi orchestrated a diverse cast of characters into a bewitching harmony, a sum greater than its parts.
But Turkish cooking can be just as direct and simple as Italian. Sometimes, in fact, it can seem Italian, as with spanaki ($6.50), spinach sautéed with garlic and pine nuts just as it is in Sicily. ("Spanaki," we should note, is the Greek word for spinach — the Turkish word is "ispanak" — and Sicily was settled by Greeks in pre-Roman times.) The condiment consisting of yogurt, cucumbers, dill, garlic, and olive oil, whether called tzatziki or cacik ($2.50) is also about as basic as it gets and shares a deep and obvious root with the Indian yogurt sauce raita.
You can get the tzatziki, along with a host of treats to dunk in it, as part of the meze platter ($14), which is a sampler and therefore irresistible. The ensemble includes dolmades (stuffed grape leaves), saksuka (roasted eggplant with bell pepper, potato, and caramelized onion in a garlic tomato sauce — a lot like caponata), and zucchini cakes, along with olives, feta cheese, and triangles of warm pita.
Since the Aegean is a sea, we might expect to find seafood on the menu, and we do, including wonderful fish patties, or balik kofte ($10), a pair of hamburger-flat disks presented with concasse tomatoes and mango dice. (Do the Turks grow mangoes?) Also quite nice was a filet of grilled salmon ($18), topped with a Meunière-like sauce of white wine, lemons, garlic, and capers and plated with vegetables and what the menu card called (in Greek) patates tiganites, or fried potatoes — sautéed cubes, really.
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