Smile Politely

Istanbul offers fine Mediterranean cuisine

Whenever my sister, Amanda, visits from our hometown of Rockford, Ill., I like to give her the Food and Drink Tour of C-U. The Tour has become even more exciting for me in the past year, since my sister has become a vegetarian. Having been a vegetarian in C-U for seven years, I am psyched when I can get others excited about our veggie-friendly establishments.

This time around, the Tour started out with a few regular stops: tapas at Radio Maria for dinner and lunch on the patio at Dos Reales on Prospect (charming décor if you don’t mind the traffic noise — I got some inspiration for my patio landscaping!). We were also eager to try a new place. I had been talking about taking my sister to Pasha for Mediterranean food for a while, but it closed before I could include it on the Tour. Luckily, another Mediterranean place, Istanbul, popped up in Pasha’s old location, and a menu I got in the mail indicated that Istanbul had an even larger and more veggilicious menu.

We drove over to the sprawling, new-ish strip mall in southwest Champaign that is also home to the second Jupiters and Billy Barooz. It’s a shame that Istanbul is that far away from where I live, because going someplace downtown is so much easier for me. However, I also get tired of the places downtown because I go there all the time. And downtown offers no place to work off your calories by playing Skee-ball.

I wondered if we would have to wait for a table when we arrived at 7 p.m. on a Saturday. The restaurant was filling up, but we were immediately greeted by a very friendly host who seated us at one of the only tables left next to the window. The table was covered in a crisp white tablecloth with a small votive candle and an elegant decanter of olive oil. A friendly server arrived quickly. He informed us that the restaurant focused on Turkish cuisine and served us house bread made fresh that day (although we could request pita). He also told us that their beer menu was in the process of being revamped and that some beers on the menu were unavailable, as the manager of the restaurant, a chef trained in New York, wanted to focus more on wine. The beer list was a bit random and the wine list wasn’t too extensive. My sister and I both opted for the house white, a tasty choice.

For an appetizer we tried the tzatziki. It arrived with the delicious house bread, a round, warm white bread decorated with ribbons of olive oil and sprinkled with sesame seeds. My sister ordered pita to have an extra option for dipping. The pita was nothing special, but the bread and the tzatziki were awesome. The tzatziki was a light variety, very cool and crisp, and not overpowered with garlic. It was a large portion for two people to share. It was so delicious that we lacked the willpower to stop noshing on it and were almost too full for dinner. We asked the waiter if we could share an entrée, to which he responded, “Of course! This is a Turkish place!”

With a vegetarian-friendly menu, complete with numerous hot and cold veggie appetizers (such as hummus and fried zucchini), lentil soup, multiple salads, and at least five vegetarian entrées, we had our work cut out for us when we were deciding what to share. We opted for the moussaka, which came with rice and a house salad. Like the tzatziki and house bread, this entrée was exceptional. I said to my sister, “I have never had eggplant that tasted this good in my entire life.” And I have had a lot of eggplant! I am sure that it didn’t hurt that this eggplant was layered with baked cheese and slices of spicy potatoes. I took pieces of my moussaka and twirled them in the rice, which was not your everyday, blah, white rice. It was buttery and fluffy. The house salad was served with a light basalmic reduction and was a perfect complement to the rich and heavy entrée.

After we were done eating, we could feel the food coma start to creep over us. Seeing as we still had night two of the Drink leg of the Tour left, we decided to get caffeinated and each ordered a cup of coffee. Even the coffee was delicious.

My sister, technically a pescetarian, said that numerous entrées on their seafood menu looked delicious. Neither of us looked at the chicken or beef options, but with a four page menu and such amazing bread, I bet my carnivorous husband will be able to find something he enjoys on the menu.

I made a return visit to Istanbul a week later, intent to take pictures of the restaurant’s culinary masterpieces, but again I was wowed by the food and forgot to take pictures. On this visit I tried the baba ghanoush, which had a delightfully smoky flavor, and the imam fainted — a savory vegetable-stuffed eggplant. My friend enjoyed the falafel.

Its dark walls, warm lighting, and quiet environment make Istanbul a great place for a romantic dinner. Vegetarian entrées run $11 to $15. Meat entrées are a few dollars more. Someday I will go there and leave room in my belly to try their Chocolate Volcano dessert.

Istanbul Mediterranean Cuisine is located at 2506 Village Green Place in Champaign.

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