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Talking Turkey - Turkish Cuisine in Florida

The Mediterranean has slowly gotten larger on Florida's menu, with a renaissance in restaurants serving the cuisines of Greece and the Middle East.

Yet a niche remains — and quite a large one. Enter Turkey.

A growing number of ethnic restaurants that can tap into a more familiar Greek identity or Lebanese character are declaring themselves Turkish.

That means thick Turkish coffee and grilled doner kebab. The Turks share with their neighbors a love for grape leaves and feta, coffee and baklava, belly dancers and hookahs, feta and yogurt, lamb and calamari. But theirs is a big, broad country with seashore, mountains and hunger for its own roast meat, red beans and lentils, crackling thin lavash, an abundance of soups, salads and vegetables. Pide is similar to pita, but the "cigars" of rolled phyllo are unique.
Despite the attention to kebabs, Turkish cooking makes much of vegetables, especially leeks, cabbages, okra and eggplant a dozen ways and the best fried zucchini in the Mediterranean.

All of which is seasoned with a heady mix of cinnamon, clove, cardamom and other sweet spices elevated with cumin, mint, pepper, sesame and sumac. Intoxicating.

That intrigues many adventurous diners looking for the next flavor of the millennium. And it satisfies Florida's Turkish population, more than 10,000 in south Florida alone, concentrated in Hollywood, Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach.

Yet the appeal of Turkish cooking extends much farther — to Tampa, Lakeland and Orlando as well. The state now has at least a dozen Turkish restaurants.

Mandolin Aegean Bistro
Mandolin Aegean Bistro

Mandolin Aegean Bistro

Turkish cooking combines with dishes from Greece in a trendy new home near the Design District in Miami. Mandolin Aegean Bistro chef-owner Ahmet Erkaya doesn't mind keeping a pot in both cuisines as he is from western Turkey, which shares the same flavors.

His appetizers included a Turkish sampler (tomato walnut salad, fava beans and hummus) as well as a Greek one (tzaziki, eggplant dip, taramasalata). He makes his "Aegean olives" by marinating Greek kalamatas in Turkish olive oil.

To Erkaya, nationality matters little in his cuisine. "It's very much ingredient-driven and olive-oil based," which makes for light, fresh local eating. That merits sophisticated presentation and touches of a modern chef, like adding pomegranate molasses to spoon salad (sort of Turkish gazpacho you can eat with a fork).

» Next page, three more restaurants to check out.

Istanbul on the Beach

Istanbul on the BeachThe biggest cluster of Turkish food is in the south around Hollywood, where Istanbul on the Beach has been serving kebab, bean salads and more for 20 years.

The appeal could be in the savory spicing, the healthful attributes of the Mediterranean diet or an unquenchable lust for olive oil.

I think it's really that we love meze, the Turkish word for little snacks eaten at anytime of day, starting with Spanish tapas and going all around the Mediterranean in bars, cafes and coffee houses.

Casual, welcoming, refreshing, they seem small but you can make quite a feast of them.

Winter Park

Bosphorous Turkish coffeeIn the latest incarnation, Turkish restaurants are outgrowing corner store locations and faded images. Six years ago, Bosphorous opened on posh Park Avenue, giving Winter Park boulevardiers a menu that goes beyond kebabs and hummus, red lentil soup and white bean salad. The Turkish-American owners and Turkish chef Halil Ertane included okra sautes and two meaty native favorites, a fried liver appetizer and Turkish pastrami. Turkey also has a place, the elegant Anatolia,?on the Sand Lake Road near Disney.

Cafe Zuppina

Ft. LauderdaleIn Lakeland, Turkish cooks have drawn a crowd under the banner Cafe Zuppina. The name is Italian for little bowls of soup because Berna Nar cooked in Rome before she and her husband, Erkan, opened this place, serving her soups as well as a full Turkish menu. It's long on vegetables, from leeks and celery root to carrot slaw and zucchini pate plus lamb chops and a beef brisket that borrows its mushroom sauce from Romania.