Influenced by Europe and Asia, Turkey is often characterized as the quintessential crossroads of East and West. Although its complex geography and history might have led to a centuries-long debate over national identity, the culinary outcome is hard to criticize.
The numerous influences from the Middle East, the Balkans, Central Asia, Russia, Greece and North Africa make Turkish cuisine familiar yet exotic, surprising yet accessible and serious fun for committed eaters.
In Lexington, that fun can be had only at Istanbul Palace.
An excellent initiation to the Waller Avenue restaurant is the lunch buffet, where everything somehow remains remarkably fresh, even the falafel. This also is a more affordable way to try menu items that individually cost $5 to $10.
Begin with the blissful red lentil soup with a tomato base and a hint of mint. The spinach stew is comfort food itself; the greens and rice get buttery, the mushroom slices succulent. Heartier but equally comforting is the vegetable stew; it has peas, chunks of carrot, potato and garlic — yes, you read right, chunks of garlic — with slivers of green bell peppers in a light broth.
It's astonishing that with our Kentucky penchant for frying, no one seems to fry carrots. But it is a great technique for concentrating flavor. They do that in Central Asia, and apparently in Turkey. The carrot's fabulousness is enhanced with a generous bath of garlic mayonnaise.
Menemen, moist scrambled eggs gently stirred with tomatoes and peppers, should be on every breakfast menu.
Several other appetizers also have made their Lexington debut at Istanbul Palace.
There is kisir, a tomato bulgur with diced cucumbers and onions ($6.95); and spicy ezme, chopped cucumbers, onions and tomatoes made fiery with hot peppers ($5.95). Mujver — zucchini patties seasoned with parsley and scallions — are napped with garlic yogurt and served on a tomato-oregano sauce similar to marinara ($5.95). Also not seen elsewhere is haydari, a creamy mix of yogurt and chopped walnuts. And if you like your feta rolled in phyllo, don't pass up the "cigarette pie" ($5.95).
On to the more familiar. The flavor of garbanzos really comes through in the Palace's hummus, and the emerald tabbouleh is a healthy garden of minced parsley, tomatoes and scallions. These three items also come on the meze platter ($9.95), along with tender yalanji dolma — grape leaves filled with soft rice and tart currants — and a terrific smoky baba ghannouj.
The grill also is full of treats. I love the doner, aka gyro ($9.95) — shavings of tender spit-roasted beef and lamb piled on pita bread and accompanied by pickled cabbage and sliced onions seasoned with sumak. The Adana kebab ($8.95) — two skewers of minced lamb, lightly salted and mildly spiced — is utterly delicious. Get an order of garlicky cacik with yogurt and cucumber ($4.95) to spread on the pita and meat. If you're on the go, these kebabs (and a few others) can be ordered as sandwiches for less than $4.
Lest you think, after all this, that the Palace's focus is only Mediterranean, the chicken in cream sauce ($10.95) has a subtle lilt of tomato that will transport you back to more classic traditions.
All entrees include vermicelli rice or fries (assuredly un-Turkish), and a choice of soup or a lovely, lemony house salad.
But leave room for "bread dessert" ($3.50), a syrup-soaked cake that transforms its base of humble pita crumbs into a sophisticated sweet.
So, sitting at these Kentucky crossroads between Midwest and South, I will diplomatically leave geopolitics to others, and eagerly focus on my next meal at Istanbul Palace.