- Brian Chilson
- SPICED JUST RIGHT: Istanbul's Chicken Shish Kebab is a solid choice.
We came to eat at Istanbul the first time by accident, choosing the restaurant almost at random from the list of available menus on the Chef Shuttle website. We were tired, which means delivery — and since we're generally fans of Turkish food, we took a chance on the Pleasant Ridge Town Center restaurant. Little Rock has several Greek and Turkish restaurants we enjoy, and we hoped Istanbul would be another.
Sometimes, those random choices pay great dividends, and Istanbul proved to be a winner. The first time may have been a random choice, but our return trips have all been planned. Istanbul hits that sweetest of spots: It's inexpensive and delicious, with portion sizes that leave the sort of leftovers that are a pleasure to revisit.
To start, Istanbul has three excellent choices for appetizers: babaganouj ($4.49), a smoky, savory eggplant puree blended with spices; a creamy hummus ($3.99 plain, $4.99 for red pepper) topped with good olive oil; and cacik ($4.49), a traditional cucumber and yogurt dip that is not only good as a dip for pita, but also tastes good on pretty much everything Istanbul serves. Any of these starters is worth ordering, but it's the red pepper hummus that keeps us coming back time and again — it's smooth and mild, rich with lemon and tahini. It's also quite filling, and stores well as leftovers, making it a dish we've ordered just to have on hand for a quick lunch the next day.
Falafel ($4.49) is another classic dish that Istanbul does well. In our experience, falafel can either be too dry to enjoy, or the chickpea fritters just fall apart. This version avoids both of those pitfalls with a moist, tender consistency that nevertheless holds up to vigorous dipping in cacik. Good simply as a side dish, the falafel can also be ordered in sandwich form ($6.50), adding tomatoes and grilled onions to the mix and wrapping the whole affair in a soft, warm pita.
Much of the menu at Istanbul takes traditional staples and serves them in different, delicious ways. The beef and lamb doner is one of our favorites, and we've had the spit-roasted meat concoction sliced and served just about every way Istanbul does it. As a simple sandwich ($6.50), the doner is a simple grilled masterpiece, while heartier appetites will be delighted with the doner platter ($11), which can easily serve two people.
Where the beef doner really blew us away, though, was in the form of a doner pizza ($10), which for our money might be one of the best pizzas in town. The crust is crisp and thin, yet somehow manages to stand up to a mighty pile of tangy sauce, cheese and copious amounts of the sliced doner meat. It's so good that we've had to force ourselves to order something else just so we can try more of the menu.
Less successful than the doner, but still tasty is Istanbul's kofte. We found these little patties of ground beef to work best as part of a sandwich ($6.50), because while the kofte still had the wonderful grilled flavor that is Istanbul's signature, we thought they were under spiced and in need of some help from the rest of our sandwich toppings. Of course, given our love of the various doner dishes at Istanbul, we may have just biased our taste buds — this kofte is still quite good.
Beef and lamb not your thing? Istanbul has a variety of vegetarian dishes that are worth ordering, including a fresh vegetable, mushroom and olive version of the pizza we loved so much. Fans of chicken should take a look at the Chicken a la Turca ($12.50), a spice-rubbed chicken thigh dish seared over an open flame to juicy perfection. Prefer white meat? Go for the Chicken Shish Kebab ($12) and enjoy chunks of tender breast meat made even better with a selection of fresh spices.
Istanbul provides more than just great food. We like its attention to detail. On the whole, our food was seasoned and spiced with care and possessed a depth of flavor that we did not expect given its relatively cheap price point. Even when ordered for delivery, the food arrived hot and fresh without a bad bite to be had. For example, side dishes like steamed rice were cooked to tender perfection — and rice is a dish we're normally picky about.
There's something for just about every appetite on the menu, making Istanbul a great place for large groups with varying tastes. The kid's menu is full of good "starter" dishes like mini chicken shish kebabs and cheesy cigar pastries — and we admire a children's menu that doesn't pander to kids but rather seeks to expose them to wider tastes than they might be used to.
Having now tried Istanbul as a dine-in, pick-up and delivery option, we can say firmly that the restaurant has gone beyond a mere random choice and into our regular rotation of restaurants. The menu states proudly that the restaurant "serves nothing but the finest imported Turkish spices, quality custom-cut local meats," and after tasting a wide variety of its offerings, we believe it without a doubt. Even better, what Istanbul does with those fresh ingredients and a grill is simply delicious, making it the sort of place where a lot of good things can happen for not a lot of money.
While Istanbul is excellent for a full lunch or dinner, it shouldn't be overlooked as a fantastic place to grab a quick snack. The savory, cheesy cigar pastry ($4.49) is a great "quick eats" option, while the restaurant's baklava and profiteroles make for a lovely option for anyone looking to treat their sweet tooth with a small bite.