Pasha drew my eye with an ad in this paper, including a coupon for a freebie appetizer platter. Hmm...a new bargain destination? Worth trying? I scurried to the website and found that the restaurant wasn’t just another generic Mediterranean eatery but specifically Turkish. Now that’s something fresh! (There’s also the charming Bird House Grill in Encinitas, and a doner-kebab joint downtown, but that’s about it for Turkish, far as I know.) The menu revealed standard Middle Eastern dishes, but also several distinctly Turkish specialties I’d never encountered before — two salads, three entrées, a dessert. Good enough for a start. And this would be third in a row for an exploration of new or newish restaurants serving various global forms of “barbecue,” after Southern and Japanese, and leading right in to July 4. Posse roundup time!
Several of my friends have traveled in Turkey. They’ve come back raving about their trips but not so much about the food. Still, knowing a trifle about Turkish history, I’m curious about the cuisine. First off, Turks are not generic “Middle Easterners,” even if they share a common religion in Islam. They don’t speak Arabic (a Semitic language) but the totally different Turkish (a Ural-Altaic Turkic language, most closely related to Azeri and Uzbek). Their location and ecosystem tie them to Asia Minor (Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, etc.), Persia, and the Adriatic Sea, rather than the Mediterranean Arab world — think snow, not sand.
And when the Ottoman Empire swept through the rest of Asia Minor en route to Greece, its military fell in love with Armenian food (same as me) and scooped up large numbers of Armenians to serve as army cooks while they were conquering the world. Greece gained an infusion of fresh recipes from Armenia, shaping the Greek cuisine we know today, but traditional Greek dishes also gained worldwide currency, especially their ancient masterpiece of stuffed grape leaves — now best known by the Turkish word dolma. One end result of all this conquest was the settling of a huge Armenian population in the city of Izmir, which became the “cuisine capital” of Turkey, after a fashion, spreading its culinary influence (at least until the whole Turkish-Armenian thing went horribly tragic, as the empire rotted, but I’m not going to go into that in a restaurant review…). What other influences did the Turks pick up in their conquests and meld into their own cuisine? Inquiring minds want to know.
When we arrived at Pasha, we found a medium-small room with dark tablecloths, paper napkins, walls painted a light terra cotta and hung with a spare but beautiful collection of Turkish handicrafts. The restaurant is owned by a youngish couple, the husband from Lebanon and the wife from Turkey. Both do some cooking and some serving. But the night we ate there, most of the Turkish dishes — the malatya (Turkish potato salad), the etli borek (meat pie), and the spinach borek — were all unavailable; they just hadn’t been prepared for a midweek night.
We began with the vegetarian meze platter, for which we had the coupon. Everything on it was very pleasant, especially the lively tabouli and the light, faintly smoky baba ghanoush. (A typo on the website spells it “Babagannosh,” which sounds like Turkish/Russian-Yiddish for “Grandpa’s getting a snack.”) None of the appetizers on the platter seems uniquely Turkish, or in any way different from every other meze platter in town. Be sure to save some of the çaçik (pronounced “jah-jik,” the Turkish version of Greek tzatziki or Indian cucumber raita) and the garlic-yogurt sauce for your main courses, as dips for your grilled meats.
We also ordered the Turkish Shepherd Salad (coban salatasi) — diced tomatoes amended by cukes, scallion, onions, parsley, and bell pepper in a lemon vinaigrette, topped with a light snowfall of feta cheese. The tomatoes are under a lot of pressure to perform in this dish, and sad to say, they didn’t: They were nearly tasteless, hard supermarket-style globe tomatoes, and June is not yet their season. The dressing needed more acidity for “oomph” to compensate for their blandness. “This time of year,” said Marty, “the only tomatoes worth anything are little ones, cherry or grape tomatoes.” “Yeah, even if you leave the regular ones on the counter, they never ripen and sweeten,” added the Lynnester. Oddly, the leftovers of this salad improved greatly during two nights in the fridge, allowing the dressing to soak in and saturate the veggies.
The best of our entrées by far was a Turkish specialty, Ali Nazik. It features small, richly seasoned cubes of charbroiled beef served on a warm bed of tart, creamy patliçan (pronounced “PAHT-lee-jahn”) salad, mashed eggplant mixed with yogurt and plenty of garlic. It comes with grilled tomato and grilled slices of slightly spicy red pepper. It all works together, with a fine contrast between the chewy, salty meat and lush, garlicky eggplant. (The eggplant is also available separately on the meze list.) “I’d come back for this dish,” said Lynne, who lives nearby, and probably will do just that.
Shrimp kebabs came in second. The shrimps were well seasoned if quite salty, and reasonably tender. Like nearly all other entrées, they were accompanied by fluffy basmati rice, pita, hummus (standing in for the baba ghanoush promised on the menu with the seafood dishes), and the fine house salad, a lively mixture of greens, tomatoes, cukes, onions, and (in this plate alone) a few whole basil leaves.
The lamb shish kebab was flavorful with a marinade and charring, but dry and rather tough. It set Marty, Dave, and me to reminiscing about Sayyat Nova, an exquisite Armenian restaurant in Greenwich Village, way back when I was a teen beatnik, thrilled to taste this new cuisine with my dad and stepmom. That restaurant’s rendition had a subtle, garlic-perfused olive-oil marinade for large leg of lamb chunks charred outside but rosy inside. At Pasha, the chunks are smaller and cooked medium (pinky-brown) inside, and the marinade is more assertive, possibly, judging by the result, including an acidic, tenderizing component like lemon juice. “I think the meat’s been marinated too long,” said Dave. “The texture on the exterior, just under the char, is a bit mealy.” “And the lamb doesn’t have much lamb flavor,” Marty observed. “I don’t know whether that’s because it’s cooked too well done or if the lamb itself is lacking.”
Unable to fulfill our hopes of a borek, we asked the owner whether the gyro meat in the Iskender (doner) kebab plate was house-made or bought. Bought, alas. Instead, the owner persuaded us to try a shawarma. Because this is a newbie restaurant with not much volume yet, the traditional shawarma of a huge hunk of flesh rotating on a vertical spit has proven impractical. “Instead, I cut it in slices, so the delicious marinade goes all through the meat, then I charbroil the slices,” he said. We chose beef shawarma over the alternative chicken breast, which dries out too easily. But the beef proved just as dry. “It’s almost like jerky!” Lynne said. “You can’t even taste the marinade, just the charring,” said Dave. Dipping the slices in çaçik or garlic sauce left over from the appetizer platter helped, but only a little.
There are two desserts. The house-made baklava is flaky and nutty (with both pistachios and walnuts) but sparing on the honey syrup — much less sweet than standard versions. “I like this a lot,” said Lynne. “It’s not overwhelming.” Kunafa is genuinely exotic, a large wedge-shaped pastry with delicate top and bottom crusts of crunchy farina flakes, sandwiching a filling of melted mild cheeses (mozzarella and Jack or Havarti, or another cheese of that ilk). It’s topped with crumbled pistachios, lightly dressed with fragrant rosewater-scented sugar syrup, and is barely sweet at all. It’s like a cheese course and a dessert all in one.
The Turkish coffee was strong and a little bitter, with all the “mud” hiding at the bottom of the cup. It comes unsweetened. We stirred in sugar with our fork handles (no spoons provided — yeah, it’s still a start-up).
Bottom line: Pasha is indeed a bargain. With the coupon for a free appetizer platter, the bill came to $28 per person total, all inclusive. But I feel the restaurant isn’t making the most of its greatest potential strength. Generic Middle Eastern restaurants are a dime a dozen, some cheaper than this and some offering easier parking. In order to compete, the Turkish dishes that distinguish Pasha from the crowd should be available all the time, and I’d also like to see more of them, if the Ali Nazik — outstanding hit of our dinner — is any example. Then there’d be a reason to come back over and over and explore what could be a unique menu. Hey, flaunt it if you’ve got it, baby!
Pasha Mediterranean Cafe & Grill
3614 Fifth Avenue, Hillcrest, 619-294-4444, themediterraneancuisine.com.
HOURS: Tuesday–Sunday 11:00 a.m.–10:00 p.m.
PRICES: Soups and appetizers, $5–$22; salads, $7–$13; sandwiches, $8–9; entrées, $9–$25 (most $13); lunch specials, $6.
CUISINE AND BEVERAGES: Middle Eastern (Lebanese) menu with several Turkish specialties.
PICK HITS: Vegetarian meze platter, ali nazik (Turkish beef cubes over eggplant salad), patliçan salad (eggplant salad, if not ordering ali nazik), shrimp kebabs, baklava.
NEED TO KNOW: Loads for vegans, including three entrées (two always available). Unisex bathroom, marginally handicapped accessible. No alcohol. Halal (Islamic version of kosher) ingredients.