One of my nephews is taking the obligatory semester abroad. At the risk of being a cranky old man — ribbons I wear with pride — back in the day if you were lucky enough to get mom and dad to pop for college, asking for a European tour on top of it might not fly. But for today’s students, it is as required as expository writing was for us. Say “no” and answer to the Department of Children and Family Services. So my nephew Quinn took his sojourn to Spain, but via Istanbul — which seemed a little indirect, and like the xenophobe I can be, got me a little worried. I don’t know much about the eastern Mediterranean, except that the good folks at CNN and my friends at Fox News seem to suggest that this might be dangerous real estate for a red head boy from downstate. I was in Malaysia when Bill Clinton decided to bomb Iraq and the thought of Quinn also being in a Muslim country, particularly one right next to Syria while Syria was exploding, didn’t sound like real good planning. But he did just fine and is now happily lisping his way through Barcelona, no doubt the much better man for the experience. That semester-abroad thing does open the world to its next generation of leaders and that has to be a good idea.
Me? I did what all xenophobes should do. I learned a little more about Turkey, this ancient country of almost 76 million people. Almost 14 million of those people live in Istanbul — no typo — five times as big as Chicago. So I got to wondering what they all ate when they weren’t hanging out in community steam baths with big hairy dudes exfoliating them with giant loofahs. It turns out they eat pretty well, if the Cafe Orchid is a fair representation. And I am pretty sure that it is.
This little West Lakeview gem is almost hidden next to a sort of strip mall just off the corner of Lincoln Avenue and Addison Street at 1746 W. Addison, just east of the rumbling Brown Line. One of its little outdoor seating areas is pretty much right in the parking lot; the other, a little bigger, is full of flowerpots that run a little more to the wild side, not the kind of perfection demanded by the power lunch crowd. Unkempt is fine by me. The indoor space is small, with whitetable cloths and date-night worthy, but when the weather warms up, go outside. The street sights and sounds are as urban as they can get, especially when conversation stops so the train can run by. Turkish music softly in the background, the walls full of trinkets, colored lights and evil-eye pendants and friendly people to bring you delicious food or open the bottle(s) of wine that you brought — you might just get a little taste of a bustling Istanbul, but without the loofahs.
Some of the food is stuff you have seen. You can start with hummus or baba ganoush to smear on warm coarse bread and you won’t be disappointed, but go a little deeper to ezme — a spicy cold concoction of roasted pepper chopped and mixed in with tomatoes, walnuts and parsley. It is pretty addicting. Feta wraps should be on the must-list. Spring roll-looking things with rich warm feta wrapped in thin layers of crisp brown phyllo — four to an order, piping hot and delicious. Not surprisingly, lamb plays big on Orchid’s menu, and they do it as well as anybody, much better than most. I have never been a fan of kebobs, for example. They always look so pretty in the store and then when you get them home and grill them they come out dry and tasteless — not here. The lamb kebob, served over bulgur (a hearty barley-like grain) came out perfect. Scorched on the corners, simply but elegantly seasoned with salt, pepper, oregano and lemon, it was tender and even better dipped in either the mild white tzatziki sauce or the hot red pepper sauce that came with it. Apparently the Turkish version of the venerable and very Americanized gyro is called donor, some secret mixture of beef, lamb and maybe veal. Like its Greek cousin, it is served on a flat bread, but very much unlike any late-night gyro I have ever had (and I’ve had a lot), it comes with zero grease. Not sure how they pull that off, but the meat is tender, flavorful in that mystery gyro way, but with none of the greasy gyro stink that we aficionados have grown to accept.
Vegetarians should love this place, with its wide array of offerings and spicing. Best in show just might have gone to the baked eggplant — tender little baby eggplant stuffed with bell peppers, onions, tomatoes, pine nuts and a secret combination of spices baked with gooey mozzarella served over more bulgur; I promise you that if you order dishes to share, this one will be gone first. Eggplant can be hard to cook. Not enough gets you tough and chewy; too much gets you mushy baby food. Also not a problem at Orchid, because the eggplant anchoring this dish was perfectly cooked and the overall flavor resulting from steeping the rest of the stuff under a pile of melting cheese was worth the trip alone. I went back a second time and tried this and darned if they didn’t do it just as good again.
Maybe if more American kids stopped in Istanbul along the way, and the Turkish kids came our way and both of them met the Syrian kids, they could all sit down to some nice baby eggplant and find a way to get along better. I know, wishful idealistic thinking, right?
But what is the point of thinking if it isn’t a little wishful? Plus, can’t great lamb be a metaphor for peace?
Verdict: 3 gavels