After wine o’clock, a place that doesn’t serve booze has to be pretty special for me to spend precious time eating there that could be spent drinking & eating somewhere else. Promising me Somerville Turkish café Istanbul’lu was just such a place, a couple of pals took me for dinner—& they were right; it’s lovely, with smiling service as open-hearted as the cooking is soul-warmingly homey & honest. Is it better than Brookline Family Restaurant or Sultan’s Kitchen? I haven’t been to either in some time, but assuming they’re as good as ever, & I might be mistaken in assuming they are, I’d be hard-pressed to rate one over the other; each has its own strengths. At BFR, for instance, there’s the lahmacun; at SK, the doner kebab. At Istanbul’lu, if we’d stopped at the warm, focaccia-like bread with what I believe is called acili ezme, or maybe biber salcazi (both are vibrant red-pepper spreads of the sort that abound in the Balkans, from avjar to lutenica)

& the remarkably expressive, funky & sour, yogurt-enriched, lamb-chunked soup called paca,

I wouldn’t have been happier.

What these & all the other appetizers we sampled revealed was the extraordinary way in which Levantine cookery milks so much flavor from plants as such—vegetables, legumes, nuts, herbs; fruits like pomegranates, lemons & olives (including the oil); spices like sumac—along with yogurt & fresh cheeses, while meat tends to play a lesser role. The overall profile of the cuisine is utterly luscious yet still fresh, sun-drenched with bright-tart accents.

For instance, under all those tomato slices (which really could have been worse given that it’s winter; at least they had a little juice) there was a meaty, zesty, simple salad of white beans & red onions.

There was haydari, a thick, mildly tangy strained-yogurt dip much like Middle Eastern labne.

And the famous imam biyaldi, eggplant stuffed with a mixture of onions, peppers & tomatoes, then baked; this wasn’t one of my favorites, however, as the eggplant was still a bit woody & stringy, a little bitter.

Borek stuffed with feta were also slightly disappointing, especially in light of my fond memories of the same dish at Sabur just across the street—the phyllo was flaccid, not crisp.

For that matter, the mucver—zucchini fritters with carrots & herbs—weren’t as crisp as they look either, but for me their softness was a plus, making for a sort of melted zucchini pudding in the mouth. (Not sure my pals agreed with me on that point, though.)

And if they’d been slightly hotter, mercimek kofte—red lentil cakes—would’ve been terrific: earthy & nutty, sprinkled with bits of tomato, green onion & parsley.

Groaning as we already were, we skipped entrees & went straight to dessert. Kadayif—essentially baklava made with shredded phyllo—was a little tough, but the flavor was textbook.

Of the 2 puddings we tried, the soothing sutlac—rice pudding (pictured)—was the bigger hit, the keskul (almond pudding) being rather bland.

In short, nearly everything had its flaws, its imprecisions—& yet, somehow, the whole was all the sweeter & more charming for them, the sum greater than its parts. Now if only they’d spike that sour-cherry juice with a little somethin somethin.

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