The air is warm and smells rich and spicy in Cafe Istanbul, and the small restaurant is cozy and comfortable. There is an instrumental version of Lionel Ritchie's "Hello" playing. Pan flute, I think. Not exactly what I expect at a Turkish restaurant, but in a way it sets the pace---I'm not going to get what I expect tonight.
It's dinnertime, just after six, and the restaurant isn't busy, but the server seems impatient to take our order. After a few minutes we order and ask for a wine recommendation to go with our meal. Without much thought, the server suggests the Trapiche pinot noir ($25), one of the more expensive bottles of red. It's an affordable, if small, wine menu and the server seems disinterested and hurried in explaining his choice, so we shrug and agree to the pairing.
The wine is quickly brought to the table, and we soon start our meal with the spinach tarator ($5.55) and the eggplant saute ($5.55) from the meze menu. They are served with a basket of warm, soft flatbread. Fresh and fluffy, the bread is delicious.
The spinach tarator is made with cream cheese instead of the more traditional yogurt. It's a thick, creamy dip and it's served with fresh cucumber and slices of sweet, tasty beets; it's good, but it's just not quite what I thought it would be.
The eggplant saute is another surprise. There is no delineation on the menu between the hot and cold meze dishes, so the word saute has me expecting something hot. It tastes like it was just taken out of the fridge. Regardless, the dish is quite good. The tomato sauce takes centre stage, overpowering the light, earthy taste of the eggplant. Even so, the eggplant is nicely cooked---soft, but not mushy---and tastes nice and fresh.
For entrees we order the kofte kebab ($14.75), made from minced lamb, and the halep kebab ($14.75), which pairs the lamb with chicken and an eggplant sauce.
Both kebabs are generous portions, with light, fresh salads and heaps of buttery rice on the side. The salads have plenty of cucumber and tomato and make for a refreshing accompaniment to the savoury kebabs. The lamb kebabs are ground lamb shaped into long, flat sausage-like patties. They are moist, delicious and wonderfully seasoned.
The chicken on the halep kebab plate is a disappointment, overcooked and bland. Served on top of toasted pita squares, it's accompanied by an eggplant sauce that, fragrant and tasty, gives the chicken new life.
The server doesn't come to check on us and our water glasses are never refilled. The pinot noir was not a great pairing---it's quite sweet, too light-bodied to stand up to the robust flavour of the lamb kebabs. Given the very reasonable $7.50 corking fee, I will probably opt to bring my own wine in the future. (Maybe I'll bring my own water, too.)
We finish off with the chocolate torte cake ($5.95) and vanilla bean cheesecake ($5.95). They are good, but the sort of uninspired desserts that seem like afterthoughts. I pair my cake with a Turkish coffee ($2). The coffee, though thick and strong, is unexpectedly unsweetened. The server doesn't make another appearance for another 20 or so minutes before asking if I'd like another. The second one is the sweet end to the meal I had hoped for.
I can't say I'm totally disappointed by my meal at Cafe Istanbul---I'm mostly perplexed. The food is ultimately pretty good, but the service is so uneven that it's hard to separate the experience from the meal.