As a food writer and restaurant critic, I’m often asked to name my favorite restaurant or cuisine. I struggle every time I’m asked, and the answer is never easy. While there are days when I have a very particular craving for something—perhaps a Korean bibimbap or a flaky, moist slab of grilled salmon—usually my food desires are more amorphous.
What I frequently seek out is something I can only call honest food. This, to me, is food prepared with integrity and fresh ingredients by someone who has an authentic connection to the cuisine and who serves it with pride. I tend to find this kind of food in small, humble ethnic restaurants, where a family prepares the dishes that they themselves grew up on and eat at home. There is a sturdy honesty and no-frills straightforwardness to this kind of cuisine—be it Mexican, Vietnamese or Ethiopian—that, in my book, makes it shine.
I was therefore delighted to discover a new restaurant that serves up this very type of food: Istanbul Bistro in East Sacramento. Turkish-born brothers Ekrem and Murat Bozkurt recently opened their cozy restaurant in the space vacated by Vanilla Bean Bistro in a little shopping center on busy J Street. It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it location, but I was lucky enough to spot the sign while stuck in traffic one Friday afternoon.
Infectiously cheerful and optimistic, the two have some compelling credentials. Murat, the chef, has worked in restaurant kitchens since he was 12 and cooked at five-star restaurants in Turkey. He recruited Ekrem, who attended hotel and restaurant management school in Turkey and worked at Hilton hotels in Texas and San Francisco, to run the front of the house and act as the face of his neighborhood bistro.
The interior of the space is virtually unchanged—the brothers inherited the tables and décor from the restaurant’s former owner—but posters of Turkey now hang proudly on the walls. That pride extends to the restaurant’s home-style Turkish food, with a handful of Mediterranean dishes thrown in for good measure. Everything on the menu is prepared on the premises, from the warm, sesame seed-speckled flatbread (served as soon as you’re seated) to the delicious baklava, a laborious dessert that few restaurants are willing to make in-house.
On my visits, I relished the food, which was served simply and sparkled with clean, fresh, bold flavors. The appetizer combo plate showcased a number of small nibbles, including acili ezme, a ravishing red pepper spread with crushed walnuts, tomatoes and cucumber that was so tasty, I would have happily plowed through a bowlful of it for my dinner. Other appetizers on the plate included haydari—thick, tangy Turkish yogurt enlivened with fresh dill and mint—and vibrant baba ganoush. Dolmades stuffed with rice, pine nuts and currants were a finger-licking treat, as were the crackly sigara böreÄŸi: warm cigar-shaped Turkish pastries filled with feta and fresh parsley.
Knockout entrées included karniyarik, baked eggplant stuffed with ground beef and topped with a lusty, full-flavored tomato sauce. As comforting as a grandma’s hug, the dish was deeply satisfying. Eggplant also is featured in the restaurant’s fabulous moussaka, a dish I’ll admit to avoiding on more than one occasion in the past. Istanbul Bistro’s version, with layers of eggplant, ground beef and soft chunks of potato, was slathered with a velvety béchamel cheese sauce and the aforementioned tomato sauce, and the ensemble sang with lively flavor. An unadorned lamb “shish plate” offered up chunks of chewy grilled meat along with onion wedges, tomatoes, red bell peppers and a generous pile of fluffy cracked wheat pilaf. And the Iskender—a lamb and beef gyro—was delectable dunked in its accompanying yogurt.
The restaurant offers several Turkish wines by the glass and a limited lineup of craft beers on tap. And for dessert, try the künefe, a traditional Turkish treat of shredded filo dough stuffed with goat cheese and soaked in sweet syrup. Served warm, it’s an intrigu-ing mélange of textures and flavors.
If you’re seeking a culinary cultural experience and crave—as I do—honest, simple, beautifully prepared food, take the time to visit this friendly new restaurant. I am certain the Bozkurt brothers will provide you with a meal you won’t soon forget.
ISTANBUL BISTRO: 3260 J St.
BEST DISHES: Appetizer combo plate, karniyarik, moussaka, hummus, lamb shish plate, baklava
DRINKS: Turkish and California wines; several craft beers on draft
ATMOSPHERE: Congenial and low-key
NOISE LEVEL: Moderate
KID FRIENDLINESS: Very kid-friendly
HOURS: Lunch Sunday–Thursday 11 a.m.–3 p.m., Friday–Saturday 10 a.m.–3 p.m., dinner Sunday–Thursday 5–9 p.m., Friday–Saturday 5–10 p.m.
CONTACT: (916) 449-8810