Turkuaz Mediterranean Gourmet
493 Hempstead Tpke., West Hempstead
AMBIENCE: Tidy Turkish grocery-takeout with tables
SERVICE: Minimal but friendly and prompt
ESSENTIALS: Open every day 9 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Tight for wheelchairs and restroom not accessible.
I’ll go out on a limb here and say that there is no more dependable cuisine on Long Island than Turkish. Your average Turkish restaurant doesn’t bother with innovation or creativity. The focus is on mastering the arts of the kebab, vegetable salads, rice and bulgur pilavs. Any Turkish restaurant worth its salt bakes its own puffy flatbread and many bake their own savory pies.
So it is high praise when I say that Turkuaz Mediterranean Gourmet is far above average. The restaurant is nothing more than six tables in the front of a workaday Turkish grocery, but the cooking evinces a refinement and soulfulness that are absent in many multimillion-dollar build-outs of my acquaintance.
Chef-owner Ufuk Cetinkaya, a native of Istanbul, got his start at Manhattan’s vaunted Turkish Kitchen and cooked in both Brooklyn and Queens before settling in West Hempstead in 2013, taking over what used to be Es Es Turkish Deli and giving it a thorough upgrade.
The first Turkish word I ever learned was patlican (eggplant), and it has served me well. At Turkuaz, eggplant virtuosity is on display in the mashed eggplant salad, smoky from the eggplant skin having been nearly incinerated before the tender pulp was scooped out; the babaganoush, mashed eggplant mixed with sesame paste, and the slightly spicy eggplant with tomato sauce. These all come on the mixed appetizer plate with a decadent labneh, strained yogurt with walnuts, garlic and dill; a less exciting hummus, and a bottomless basket of warm, homemade bread.
Among the hot appetizers, don’t miss the sigara boregi, elegant little fried “cigars” of phyllo encasing seasoned feta. Turkuaz serves five enormous, boat-shaped “pies” — like open-faced calzones — stuffed with an assortment of meats, cheese and vegetables, which are meals in themselves. They were bested by the more restrained lahmacun, a thin crust strewed with seasoned lamb, then folded over and served with a pile of sumac-dusted onions.
The pinnacle of Turkish kebabs is the Iskender kebab, named for its inventor, Iskender Efendi, who lived in Bursa (a city about 100 miles due south of Istanbul) in the late 19th century. To make it, sliced doner kebab (lamb roasted on a vertical spit) is heaped onto pieces of toasted bread, then slathered with drippings and tomato sauce and finished with a side of yogurt. This is a run-don’t-walk dish.
Shish kebab, chicken kebab, Adana kebab (spicy ground lamb) — all succulent, as were the lamb chops and “chicken chops,” thighs whose bones have been left attached only at one socket, forming a sort of poultry-pop. Turkuaz even excels with fish, grilling to a turn that popular whole fish of the moment, farmed branzino.
All meat platters come with a choice of rice or bulghur (cracked wheat). If you only have one platter, go for the rice, a plump, short-grain Turkish variety called Baldo, which is mixed with a small amount of browned orzo into a buttery “pilav” that is good on its own, great with whatever meat juices it picks up on your plate.
Desserts, except for the excellent baklava, are all made in house. Kazandibi is a stiff milk custard with a brûléed crust that, here, is dusted with cinnamon and rolled up, jellyroll style. It’s elemental, and it grows on you. A frequent special is kunefe, a toasty disk of shredded phyllo enclosing melted cheese and topped with chopped pistachios and aromatic syrup.
Missteps here are few and far between. Falafel, not common in Turkey, is perfunctory. Flavor-free tomatoes add nothing but faint color to the dishes they garnish, and render pointless the salads in which they are featured players. Kofte, grilled ground lamb patties, were dry — the weak link in a strong kebab chain.
Turkuaz offers little in the way of amenities. Although there is proper silverware, plates are plastic and cups are Styrofoam. More problematic are the skimpy paper napkins, laughably ill-equipped to handle food that cries out to be eaten with the hands. A roll of paper towels on each table would not be out of line.
Then again, when the napkins are your principal complaint about a restaurant, you know you’ve found a great one.