I was talking to Ali Sarraf, the owner of a new restaurant in San Miguel de Allende, about the name he chose for his pride and joy. I told him I was never sure if his chosen word was a positive or a negative. I remember when it was a popular nickname but I was never sure if I personally wanted to be called Turk or not to be called Turk. But I do know Ali’s restaurant is called Turk. And I’m very positive about this Turk. And I do know I want to go back to Turk. Soon.
So is the cuisine Turkish? Yes, a little. But not a lot. But I’m not sure I could even name a lot of Turkish dishes.
Ali Sarraf calls it “Mediterranean street food” which is probably about as close as you can come when you describe something that combines Egyptian, Iranian, Greek, Moroccan, Lebanese and that Turkish cuisine.
Ali Sarraf spent thirty years in the restaurant biz in Los Angeles and he has a touch of LaLa sway and swagger in his manner and moves. Beneath his self-confidence though, I found Ali to be a very straightforward, forthcoming and modest guy.
“I’m taking my time with Turk, taking it slowly”, said Ali. “I may know the food but I’m still learning about the town and the restaurant scene here.”
Turk’s menu is small. It fits on one side of half a piece of 8-1/2 x 11 paper. I like small menus as they usually focus on what a restaurant does well.
“The menu will grow, but slowly”, said Ali. “It’s been a matter of finding the right people, the right ingredients, the right recipes and putting them all together.”
“Lee Duberman (from Casa Papaya in San Miguel) did a wonderful job with the early development of some of the recipes. A lot of those dishes were all new to Juan Carlos (Chef Juan Carlos Hernandez) but he has the talent and the enthusiasm.”
I’m a big fan of a lot of small tastes rather than one dominant one so I’m a big fan of mezes. Turk’s meze plate may be the absolute highlight of the menu. It includes creamy hummus and baba ghanoush, very crispy falafel, pickled vegetables and tahini. The first three are only chickpeas and eggplant until the spicing enters the equation. Turk gets it just right, particularly with the generous amount of sesame.
As really good as everything on the plate is, the pickled vegetables are really, really good. They haven’t spent much time in vinegar and therefore taste like fresh vegetables not acetic acid.
“Everything on the meze (never know if that word should have one or two zees…or is it one or two zeds?) plate”, Ali told me, “is made fresh daily!”
When you consider that the mezze (equal time for two zees) plate is only $150, it’s almost enough to make someone turn vegeta…no, my fingers start to cramp when I try to type that word.
Plaudits too to the lightly toasted and still warm pita triangles that accompany the mezes. Ali Sarraf told my friend Rich and I, “We’re not quite there with the pita yet.”
“You’re there as far as I’m concerned”, said Rich and I agreed.
I experienced my first döner kebab in 1979 and nowhere near the Mediterranean but in London, England when, at approximately 11:05 pm on a Saturday evening, in a pub we called The Pride, someone said something like, “Instead of cod and chips, why don’t we do kebabs?”
Now I thought I knew what a kebab was (at least if it came after the word shish). It came on a skewer about eight inches long, with four or five chunks of lamb and, usually, green (I had still not had my first red) peppers and onions. But this was a giant skewer about three feet long with at least ten pounds of meat on it. Watching it spin was like a choreographer being fascinated by her prima ballerina.
The lamb was more tender, more juicy than I was used to and who cared if you got this white sauce all over your fingers and on your tie (yes, we all still wore them then).
Turk’s döner kebab is about 50/50 lamb and beef with the taste of the lamb a little lost in the mix. If you’re going to have something dominant though, there’s isn’t that’s much better than beef. Turk has added a second rotisserie since my first time there with some very moist-looking chicken that is also very tempting but yet to be tried.
I like Turk’s decision to serve the meat in a wrap and I like the choice of the regular or sweet potato sides.
“Yes, I buy them frozen”, said Ali Sarraf, “but only because I think they’re the best possible potatoes we can serve.”
Part of that “best possible” is the way the potatoes are nicely sprinkled with spice. Choosing the white or sweet has quickly become one of San Miguel’s toughest choices (always smooth-talk your dining partner into doing the splits).
Another side that’s worth ordering separately are the Moroccan beets. The dominant spice is cardamom. Now I don’t know much about cardamom (no idea what plant it comes from) except it’s very expensive (third most after saffron and vanilla) and I very much like it.
Rich and I were having lunch at Turk and, at lunch, dessert is rarely on our menu but Ali Sarraf is very charming and can be very persuasive.
Bastani Sonnati (spelling courtesy of Ali) is an ice cream native to Persia that is made with rosewater, vanilla, saffron and a generous amount of roast pistachios.
“What a great finish to a meal”, said Richard. “I love those crispy bits on top.”
The “crispy bits” were a deep-fried garnish called (and spell-checked) Zoolbiett by Ari. The topping was the finale to a lunch that was very enjoyable from top to bottom.
There is, however, still one important thing missing from Turk’s menu. Usually when I’ve had döner kebabs…or their sister dishes…shawarmas, gyros or donairs…there was usually alcohol involved…either before or during. So that means that Turk will probably be restricted to a lunch not dinner spot for me for the time-being.
“I thought we’d have a licence by now and not sure what to say, said Ali Sarraf with a shrug of the shoulders. “It could be tomorrow; it could be three months from now.”
That was the third time in two weeks I had heard similar words from a restauranteur but had no advice to share with them.
Though, like I said, I never was and still aren’t sure what it means, Ali Sarraf was the kind of guy we called a Young Turk back when I was in my teens. It was usually a guy with a lot of ideas, a guy who wanted to make some changes to the way things were done, a guy who wanted to make things better for the rest of us. I think we might have called Ali Sarraf a Young Turk.
Turk is located at Salida a Celaya #16 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The restaurant is open from Tuesday to Thursday, Noon to 9:00 pm; Friday and Saturday, Noon to 10:00 pm; Sunday, Noon to 6:00 pm. Closed Mondays.