Freshly made falafels are drizzled with hearty, nutty tahini. Photography by Wyatt Kostygan
Archaeological evidence suggests that the Aegean coast of Turkey has been continuously inhabited by humans for over 40,000 years. Anatolians, Thracians, Greeks, Romans, and Ottoman Turks all shaped the region’s history, sharing cultures, languages, and cuisines, with the latter solidifying into a cohesive style during the rule of the Ottoman Empire. Ersen Irsel, owner and operator of Bodrum Restaurant in downtown Venice, is a product of this rich history.
Born in Edirne in northwestern Turkey, a place where his family has lived for generations, Irsel and his wife Yuliya founded Bodrum Mediterranean five years ago. While steeped in his homeland’s age-old culinary history, Irsel also worked in the cutthroat dining industry of Manhattan, cutting, dicing, and cutting his way through the kitchen of Amaranth, a contemporary Mediterranean restaurant between Madison Avenue and the South End sautéed the Centralpark. With his feet in tradition and modernity, Irsel has put together a white tablecloth restaurant in which upscale Aegean staple foods can be enjoyed in an upscale atmosphere.
And it all starts with mezze.
Some of the most notable and hearty mezze include the carrot tarator and “Mama” potato dip. The tarator sees shredded carrots sautéed in extra virgin olive oil and then mixed with Greek yogurt, walnuts, garlic, and spices. Immensely creamy, a bit sweet and uncompromisingly rich, the tarator spread is a Turkish specialty that cannot be found in any other restaurant in town. The same goes for the potato dip – yes, his mother’s recipe – another silky and hearty spread, seasoned with dill and cucumber, that tastes somewhere between tzatziki and potato salad. For adventurous groups of four or more, a sample mezze platter is the best opportunity to explore the wonderful world of Aegean starters.
All over Greece, Turkey and the Levant, starters such as hummus, baba ganoush or tabouli are prominently represented as a snack or as a first course. Bodrum offers two of the above mezze with notable and delicious improvements over the versions most commonly found in the US. Unlike most tabouli, which are mostly made from chopped parsley, the Turkish style (kisir) is heavier on the broken wheat. The tabouli is more hearty than spicy and tastes more like couscous than a salad. For the Baba Ganoush, an admittedly healthy and hearty dip, Irsel uses smoked eggplant and plenty of garlic, which gives it a whole new dimension of taste that most Mediterranean or Middle Eastern restaurants seek.
Appetizers rely heavily on land-dwelling ungulate creatures, with two standout lamb dishes. The beyti kebab takes grass-fed lamb that’s flavored with Irsel’s blend of Turkish spices like sumac and red pepper flakes, then skewers and grills the meat before wrapping it in lavash. Garnished with a shot of three different sauces – yogurt, tomato and butter – the kebabs look like enchiladas, but have the pastoral taste of the meat prepared with grass. The New Zealand lamb chop entree has won over skeptics from day one. “A lot of people say that they hate the smell of lamb when they’re cooking,” says Irsel, “but everyone who tries it seems to order it again and again.” The four chops with rice are subtly seasoned with salt, pepper and rosemary leaves and a salad of romaine lettuce, onions, tomatoes, cucumber and grated carrots.
Of course, no cuisine from a country with as much coast as Turkey would be complete without a seafood starter. Both a grilled swordfish and salmon are on the menu, but the halibut and caper sauce stands out. As a seasonal specialty, the light, firm and buttery fish is rounded off with a creamy, spicy sauce, which is seasoned with lemon juice and spices, mixed with tomatoes and olives. While the halibut’s mild taste makes a worthy canvas for the sauce, it would be interesting to see how it is served on a fish caught in the Gulf, such as yellowfin tuna or grouper.
Nevertheless, the food exudes something timeless, as if civilization in western Turkey had helped distill everything tasty in a single kitchen. Vegetables and legumes are in abundance, just as high doses of protein and fiber, nothing too heavy with excess calories, everything finely seasoned with spices that have been used for thousands of years. It’s all filling, but not in that weighty three-day food coma way. The menu could exactly be described as Turkish with a Greek twist, yes, but it’s also more universal. Call it food for building civilizations.