We often lament that Cincinnati restaurants featuring very ethnic (or creative) menus seem to have difficulty gaining traction and a consistent audience. Fortunately, it looks like Sultan’s Mediterranean Cuisine might prove an exception to this regrettable rule.
Ethnic cuisine is its bread and butter, or “pita and olive oil,” if you will. The menu is studded with unfamiliar specialties like Piyaz and Circik (our server offers that “c” is pronounced like “j” in Turkish). On a recent Sunday evening the place is slammed, a fact that has flustered the sole waiter on duty, who looks like Jason Bateman circa Teen Wolf Too.
He arrives at our table breathlessly stammering apologies, but we assure him we’re fine and quickly order drinks and appetizers.
I have an Efes Dark ($4.50), Turkish brown lager that’s surprisingly light, but looks like under-carbonated cola and tastes pleasantly of espresso and molasses. My wife’s Kavaklidere Çankaya ($7 a glass) tastes like a decent, full-bodied Pinot Grigio, though it’s a blend of obscure Turkish grapes (Narince, Emir, Sultaniye).
A yogurt drink, Ayran ($2), proves too sour for my son.
“I thought it would be like Mango Lassi,” he puckeringly explains, referring to a favorite Indian beverage. “But it’s not.”
He opts instead for a soda. Our waiter hurries off toward the bar, but we don’t see him again for a while.
While waiting, we peruse the menu, but later learn that some attractive-sounding dishes (like the “Special” Beyti and Spinach Soup) are sold-out from the night before. Others (like calf’s liver and leeks with carrots, garlic and dill) have been discontinued due to slow sales. Still, we manage to assemble a broad selection of interesting options
Eventually, we catch Jason Bateman long enough to order entrées and ask about that soda. He sincerely apologizes and notes that our appetizers are now up. Then he wanders off — and we don’t see him or our food or that soda for about 10 minutes.
By now, the manager (who looks like Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast) is helping clear the stalled traffic from the kitchen and additional servers have been brought in.
Our appetizers (and soda) finally arrive, including Circik ($5), a smooth, soupy yogurt blended with bits of diced cucumber and lots of garlic, dill and mint; Piyaz ($4.50), an addictive white bean salad with parsley, chopped tomato and sweet red bell pepper; and Kisir ($5), a tabouleh-like salad of cracked wheat, tomatoes, garlic and parsley that’s maybe too subtle. The Baba Ghanoush ($6) is smooth and spot-on, while our basket of pita is warm and doughy. And a Rolled Cheese Pie ($5.50) includes four finger-fat, deep-fried cigars of crunchy pastry filled with decadently blended feta and mozzarella.
When Ben Kingsley stops by, I ask for the wine list and he insists on bringing a glass of ’05 Volver Tempranillo (on the house!) from Spain. It’s quite good — loads of dark fruit and vanilla oak with just enough tannic “bite” to pair with my entrée, Wood Oven Roasted Lamb ($15). In Turkish cuisine, simple preparations allow high-quality ingredients to shine, as this dish proves. A huge mound of moist and meaty shredded lamb enhanced with wood smoke is served with plain rice, charred tomato and green pepper. With a drizzle of Circik, it’s delicious.
In fact, all our entrées are fabulous. And enormous. The Iskender Kebab ($15), named for the 19th-century inventor of the vertical “mangal” (or barbecue) is a pile of succulent, marinated doner (lamb meat) served atop cubed pita that sop up meat juices, a drizzle of garlic yogurt and tomato sauce.
Baked Eggplant ($14), an “Ottoman Specialty,” is halved, roasted and piled high with aromatically spiced ground beef and lamb, tomatoes and herbs. And, though there’s no stick, the Adana Kebab ($12.50) is wonderfully seasoned, juicy pressed lamb grilled over hot coals.
As we package our leftovers, Jason Bateman presents the bill. “What about dessert?!” we ask. He apologizes and returns with just three selections, informing us that they’ve sold out of his favorite — and three other options. So we order a creamy (if slightly bland) rice pudding and a delicious plate of Baklava. Later, he’ll point out that both desserts have been “comped” due to the slow service.
On the way out, Ben Kingsley smilingly encourages us to return. And with such varied, interesting and well-prepared food, we certainly will. But there’s room for improvement — staffing, for example. And, considering it opened six weeks ago, the location (an old Encore Cafe, minimally updated) seems a bit shabby: There’s a gash in our booth’s cushion and peeling wallpaper in the bathrooms.
But these are quibbles. Sultan’s is already building buzz, drawing customers from across the northern suburbs. And management seems aware when things go awry, proactively addressing these issues. It’s a promising start, one that I suspect will lead to a long, well-deserved run in West Chester.
Go: 7305 Tylers Corner Place, West Chester
Hours: 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday
Entrée Prices: $12-$23
Red Meat Alternatives: Chicken, fish and vegetarian options
Accessibility: Fully accessible