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The Empire

BY Nevin Martell | September 9, 2016 | Feature Features

Restaurateur Hakan Ilhan delivers an exceptional taste of his native Turkey with Ottoman Taverna.
FRESH CATCH Pan-seared branzino with fingerling potatoes, capers, tomatoes, olives and sauteed spinach

Brilliant blue glass eyes—arrayed on a stark white wall—stare back at guests as they walk into Ottoman Taverna. The traditional Turkish charms are intended to ward off evil, while signaling to visitors that they are leaving the Mt. Vernon Triangle neighborhood for the course of their meal.

The transportive space is breathtaking, worthy of Instagrams from every angle. Sleek and chic, it’s dressed up in white, pale gray and tawny tones to evoke the Mediterranean. Honeycomb light fixtures and exposed beams traverse the high ceilings. Light streams through the floor-to-ceiling windows looking out onto Fourth Street Northwest. And the stunning open kitchen features a charcoal pit with a copper hood boldly stamped with the restaurant’s name while gleaming copper pots hang along its upper reaches.

The 160-seat eatery is the lifelong dream of Turkish-born restaurateur Hakan Ilhan, who also owns Alba Osteria next door and L’Hommage Bistro Francais less than two blocks away. He tapped Istanbul native Ilhan Erkek, a veteran of The Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Naples, Fla., to bring their homeland’s cuisine to life. The executive chef considers his menu a greatest hits of his country’s cuisine, so recipes are sourced from the Turkey’s 81 provinces.

All meals begin with pita dotted with black and white sesame seeds. Substantial, but still airy, the round is baked in a wood-fired oven and served with ezme, a whipped tomato spread with a dark sweetness courtesy of pomegranate molasses. While you’re enjoying the bread basket, think about ordering a cocktail. You can smell the ginger in the Sultans of Swing, thanks to a generous chip of the aromatic root resting on the giant ice cube cooling the glass. Fortified with gin, it ends with a satisfyingly bitter bite. For a silkier sip, opt for the glimmering orange Istanbul Nights crafted from black grape raki (anise accented Turkish brandy), vermouth, aperol and lime juice.

As you’re surveying the menu, don’t worry if you’re unsure of what you’re choosing because you’re in good hands. Ottoman Taverna offers fastidious service from staffers who are happy to explain a dish or educate a diner on its correct pronunciation. “It’s shack-shoe-ka,” my server tells me before describing it as a mound of crispy eggplant, red bell pepper and zucchini zigzagged with minty yogurt and a slightly spicy tomato sauce. The description was spot on­—and so was the appetizer.

Yogurt soup is another worthwhile beginning. Paprika oil and parsley dance on the surface, adding a last-minute punch to the rice-punctuated starter that’s much lighter than its name might imply. A selection of meze is a must, especially the haydari (thick labneh yogurt enlivened with dill and mint), Carcashian chicken (chicken salad with mashed up walnuts) and muhammara (red peppers, walnuts and olive oil).

Then it’s onto the mains. First up are the pide, which might be best envisioned as galette-style pizza. A thin yet buoyant canoe-shaped crust cradles melted cow’s milk cheese and spicy lamb sausage cut into small rounds, so it recalls an elevated pepperoni pizza. The branzino shouldn’t be missed. Crowned with sprigs of fresh dill, a pair of silver skinned filets perch on a throne of sauteed spinach, tomatoes and olives. For a heartier choice, get the mantisi, tiny beef-filled ravioli covered in yogurt sauce and red rivulets of paprika butter.

It wouldn’t be a Turkish restaurant without doner, and Erkek doesn’t disappoint. Roasted, shaved and slivered top-round beef and lamb come pocketed in pita or laid on a bed of rice pilaf. Though it’s filling, it doesn’t leave one feeling heavy—which means there’s enough room remaining for k√ľnefe, golden baked threads of kadayif pastry enveloping a layer of melted cheese and soaked in sweet syrup. Enjoy it with a cup of semisweetened, superstrong Turkish coffee to complete your gustatory trip to Istanbul.

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