The Turkuaz Special
Unforgettable Food and Seattle's Most Charming Waitress
One of my first months in Seattle was passed in Madrona, dog-sitting the world's sweetest standard poodle in a house with a view of Lake Washington. It was a good life, but a very quiet one. Since then, the only real draw of Madrona has been a bowl of bouillabaisse at Crémant (and perhaps the occasional cupcake from Cupcake Royale). For all its shops and restaurants, 34th Avenue often seems deserted, giving few reasons to linger in such a staid, upscale world.
Now Madrona's Bistro Turkuaz has settled into the neighborhood, joining Crémant as another place where you can happily dally over a bottle of wine and conversation. Turkuaz is as warm and welcoming a restaurant as you could ask for: a long, railroad car–skinny room with just 10 tables, copper-colored punched-tin ceilings, crimson and yellow walls, blond wood floors. A tiny set of stairs in the back leads to the kitchen, where you can catch glimpses of chef Ugur Oskay preparing her soul-warming, garlic-laden, perfectly seasoned home-style Turkish food. The cozy dining room is presided over by Oskay's daughter, Dila Bizel, easily Seattle's most charming waitress.
Follow Bizel's advice and start with a few of Turkuaz's appetizers, called meze, all of which come with thick, warm pita bread. Along with Middle Eastern standards like hummus ($7) and baba ghanoush ($7)—both of which are somehow creamier, smoother, and more subtle-tasting than any you've had before—Oskay offers lesser-known spreads and salads. Mucver ($8), pan-fried zucchini pancakes whose centers are pleasantly moist and soft, are topped with dollops of thick yogurt. Acuka ($9) is a smoky-sweet puree of roasted red peppers, walnuts, and garlic, brightened by lemon. It's not perfectly smooth, and a piece of pita or index finger dragged through it often yields a small, gratifying nutty crunch.
Turkuaz's entrées highlight marinated meats, hunks of which are skewered onto long metal sticks and grilled over direct flames before landing on the plate as kebabs. Kofte kebab ($15), meat patties made of ground beef and lamb, are spicy and satisfying, each served atop a slice of pita. If the kofte is a tad dry, a quick dip into the accompanying pot of cacik immediately remedies the situation. (A note on the omnipresent cacik, yogurt sauce made with cucumbers, garlic, dill, mint, and astringent sumac: For all its potent tang and garlic bite, it never gets old. Don't be surprised when you find yourself sopping it up with bread and meat, working it into nearly every bite.)
The Turkuaz Special ($20), a massive dish that masterfully brings together many of Turkuaz's different textures and flavors, actually is special. (As a bonus, your order is met with an approving and assuring eyebrow raise and smile from Bizel.) A skewer of grilled lamb chunks, slightly charred on the outside, flavorful and juicy on the inside, sits atop a warm bread salad made of patilican sole (roasted eggplant) and crusty, fluffy bites of chopped pita. It's dressed with the simplest sauce—plain chunks of tangy, high-quality tomatoes—and surrounded by pools of cacik. The dish—a pile of spicy meat; rich, earthy eggplant; pillowy pita; and bright tomatoes; all brought together by that magical yogurt sauce—is unforgettable.
Oskay's plating and presentation—perfect, symmetrical placement of pita and sauce, strategic dustings of parsley and sumac—is worth noting. It's certainly not necessary, considering the rustic, simple nature of the food; it feels more like a gesture to Turkuaz's clientele, wealthy neighborhood couples who come for a somber meal during which everyone speaks in restrained, hushed tones as a lethargic Norah Jones album plays in the background. While you can't fault a restaurant for catering to its neighborhood, Turkuaz sacrifices some vibrancy and joy in creating an "elegant" atmosphere. While my dining companion and I were thrilled by our meal, we found ourselves whispering the entire time. The lilting songs Bizel was humming to herself as she worked the room would have made a better soundtrack.
Toward the end of the night, when the Norah Jones album was over and the restaurant was nearly empty, a few family friends showed up. The energy changed immediately and dramatically for the better. Oskay came out of the kitchen and greeted us, followed by her son, and everyone sat around the table in the window, sipping liquor and snacking. "Let me know if you need anything else, but take your time," Bizel smiled. "Our friends are here now." Soon the restaurant was filled with laughter and loud conversation, and the place felt like it should.