Newport on the Levee is the envy of us folks living on the north banks of the river, and the opportunity to do a little food globe-trotting there doesn't help one bit. The Turkish restaurant Café Istanbul, one of the Levee's first venues to offer an international flair, has recently expanded its own reach.
The last time I visited, the restaurant had a distinctly Middle Eastern tone. The tapestries on the walls and ornate pewter smoking pipes gave the place a vague opium-den vibe, and the sectioned dining room put harems in mind. As for the food, the heady aroma of lamb transported me to Turkish streets crowded with street vendors and spies in trench coats.
With the arrival of a new chef, Cengiz Saraman, however, the flavors have gotten a little, well, continental: The café now carries the tag line "a Mediterranean café." OK, so technically speaking Turkey is bound by the Black Sea to the north and the Mediterranean Sea to the south, so it isn't that much of a stretch to include pasta on the new menu -- but somehow the new emphasis just felt wrong to me.
My guess is that the intent of the new dishes is to give diners more options, but I must admit I miss the Lamb Okra and Traditional Turlu (cubed eggplant, zucchini, potatoes, tomatoes, onions, green peppers and green beans in tomato sauce) from the old menu. But traditionalists shouldn't fear -- the café has left many dishes intact, including the wonderful Doner Kebab ($12), an Istanbul street eatery staple consisting of thinly sliced lamb slow-cooked on a vertical spit and served with rice pilaf and vegetables. And even though the combination with dishes like Vegetarian Lasagna ($11) and Grilled Apple Salmon ($16) seemed odd to me, we had little complaint with the execution of the new dishes we tried.
I felt a little better when we arrived for dinner -- the place looked the same. It still has those huge, crazy-looking chandeliers that remind me of a Western from the silent movie era. And our server, a no-nonsense character, looked and acted like he should be carrying a sword. We had the impulse to immediately do whatever he said. (I'm sure the server-in-training trailing him felt the same!) He exuded a confidence that assured me we were in good hands.
We decided to dip our fingers into old and new, starting with Efes Pilsner Turkish beer ($5) and a Meze Sampler ($12) with smoked salmon, beef pastrami, grape leaves, hummus, Bulgarian feta, olives and ezme (chopped tomatoes, onions, hot peppers and nuts mixed with olive oil and herbs). The platter was served with warm flatbread and butter (a schizophrenic tradition the old menu had as well).
We were astounded with the texture of several of the items as well as the subtlety of flavoring. The salmon, beef and grape leaves, all with the potential to be tough and chewy, were anything but. And the hummus, prone to the sharpness of raw garlic, was mellow with a hint of cumin. Even the feta's usual bite was tamed to a smooth creaminess.
Since I could basically eat olives on ice cream, we followed our appetizer with a side portion of the Olive Salad ($6; entrée size is $10) and truly hit pay dirt. The olive tapenade vinaigrette clung to the greens under a mound of fresh julienne slices of cucumber that partially obscured blissful little squares of breaded and fried feta. My God, what a flavor explosion!
For entrees we tried a couple of the new dishes: Mediterranean Ribeye Steak ($21) and Medallion Mushroom Risotto ($12). I hesitated in ordering the risotto because it's not the easiest dish to execute, but my husband egged me on and I was glad he did. The chicken medallion was surprisingly small (not a problem for me, but meat lovers should be forewarned). The risotto was rich and earthy with the tastes of porcini, chestnut and button mushrooms.
My husband's 12-ounce steak was a little on the tough side and its onion confit a little too sugary for my overdeveloped sense of sweet, but the black pepper demiglace was a nice touch.
More interested in the Doner Kebab carryout we ordered than dessert, we finished the meal in true Turkish form with an espresso-sized cup of thick, sweet Turkish coffee, which our server appeared with as if on cue.
I'll be ordering from the Middle Eastern side of the menu the next time I visit Café Istanbul, but then I'm a sucker for anything culinary that smacks of the exotic.
The new dishes are actually a smart move when you think about it. Most of us ethnic food lovers often find ourselves in the company of not-so-adventurous tastes. Case in point: the group of coworkers seated beside us. Having been at these work junkets myself, I can tell you tastes vary wildly. This way we can have our kebob and eat it too. ©
Go: Newport on the Levee, Newport
Hours: Sunday-Thursday 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.
Payment: All major credit cards
Red Meat Alternatives: Seafood, pasta, salads and vegetarian appetizers
Accessibility: Fully accessible, valet parking available