If your only knowledge of Turkish food consists of the confection called "Turkish Delight," you're not alone.
While Turkish food isn't well known, you could say the same about Cazbar, a narrow restaurant on Charles Street in Mount Vernon. It was so under the radar that it was recently reported to be closed. The tales of Cazbar's demise were greatly exaggerated, though, which is a good thing.
Sitting down with a menu in Cazbar's cozy dining room, it's clear that any and all fears of otherworldly cuisine are unfounded. Many items on the menu are recognizable to even the most unadventurous eaters.
Kebaps and dips are listed alongside more exotic fare such as lahmacun. Described as Turkish pizza, the dish invoked a trip to Camden Yards. After a squirt of lemon juice and a garnish of onions, this appetizer tasted like a great ballpark chili dog. The mixture of ground beef and tomatoes was excellent on the crispy, wafer-thin crust, slightly charred on the edges. It paired well with a glass of Buzbag Kayra ($9), their dry house white wine, or a tall glass of Efes ($6), a Turkish pilsener.
The star among the drinks was the Yeni Raki ($8). Easy to miss on the menu, it was suggested to us and served in a clever copper ice bowl by our patient and helpful waiter. It tasted somewhere between absinthe and ouzo, and helped cleanse the palate between courses.
It was a while before we noticed the great little tile lamps hanging from the ceilings throughout the restaurant. Once spotted, they stood out just as much as the beautifully floral Turkish bowls that adorn the walls.
The Mohamara ($5.99), a popular Turkish appetizer, was impossible to overlook. This wonderfully thick dip of walnuts, red pepper paste and pomegranate puree was a slow burner, tempered by the soft pita bread customarily served with Cazbar's dips.
The deceptively subtle Manti ($8.19) was made of marble-size dumplings filled with ground beef. They basked in a garlic sauce tinted red ochre with paprika and topped with spiced yogurt. By this point in the meal, my companion and I could have happily kept ordering from the many mezes (small plates of food) offered on Cazbar's menu. Ordering entrees, however, turned out to be an even better choice.
Its fantastic when you come across a "best I've ever had" dish, but when you get two in one meal, you know you're in the right place. The Lamb Moussaka ($18.99) was a recipe I thought I knew until I had Cazbar's version. Velvety, meaty, cheesy and smoky, it had just the right amount of tomato sauce. It was an example of how comfort food knows no cultural bounds.
The Stuffed Eggplant ($15.99) was a lesson in delicate flavor. Silky and slightly bitter eggplant was stuffed with a melange of pine nuts, currants and caramelized onion, and topped with melted kasar cheese. This main course is a vegetarian's delight — just be judicious with the dill yogurt sauce. The eggplant's fiery spices can quickly become overwhelming.
Other entrees, although new to us, were just as noteworthy. Made from a strata of pita, grilled meats and sauces, the Adana Iskender ($20.99) was a transformative dish. After soaking up all of the juice from the various ingredients, the pita took on the consistency and taste of a soft cheese. The Doner Kebap ($16.99) had ground beef and lamb, grilled crisp on the outside but tender and pink on the inside, enhanced by a side of dill yogurt sauce. It should be noted that none of the food served needed salt or pepper, and the buttery rice that is served as a side with all of the dishes was dotted with toasted orzo and tasty by itself. This is the mark of a great restaurant.
The desserts were as traditional as the belly dancers who perform at Cazbar on Friday and Saturday nights. The Baklava and the Kadaif (both $6.99) were variations of a theme. Both were made up of the same ingredients — filo, pistachios, and lemon syrup — with the Kadaif featuring shredded filo instead of layered. Both were sweet and nutty with a great crunch. The Rice Pudding ($4.50) is among the best in the city — definitely worth trying.
Trying a new cuisine is always a risk. Odd names, weird ingredients and strange customs all come with the territory. But it's the exploration — the curiosity — that sometimes brings us the greatest reward. That's the case at Cazbar.
Where: 316 S. Charles St., Baltimore
Contact: 410-528-1222, cazbarbaltimore.com
Open: 11 a.m.-midnight Monday-Thursday; 11:30 a.m.-2 a.m. Friday-Saturday; 4 p.m.-midnight Sunday
Credit Cards: Visa, American Express, MasterCard, Discover