Shortly after greeting us, our waiter lugs over a big tray covered in white oval dishes and balances it against the edge of the table. I wonder if he’s so high that he’s forgotten we haven’t ordered yet.
“Instead of bringing around a dessert cart, it’s a Turkish tradition to present our cold appetizers to you,” he says, quite lucidly. He then makes the rounds of the tray, describing each dish: Though we’ve barely looked over our menus, my friend and I can’t just pass over the tray. We pick a bulgur salad and “Circassian chicken,” which looks just like hummus, and we’re given a plate of warm whole-wheat pita triangles as a bonus.
Ephesus serves Turkish food of a caliber you won’t find anywhere else in the Bay Area. That it is also as lovely a restaurant as I’ve seen in the East Bay makes it one of Walnut Creek’s few destination restaurants.
The Goksover family, originally from Istanbul, opened the restaurant in early August. Hakki Goksover, the head chef and chief kebab griller, trained in restaurant school in Turkey and moved here to finish his studies, eventually managing Kincaid’s. Hakki’s mother, Ufuk, prepares all the cold dishes and salads, using recipes that have been in the family for generations. According to one of the waiters, there’s a brother and a wife on staff, too, but they don’t share cooking responsibilities.
The high-design interior doesn’t resemble most family-owned restaurants. It’s sleek but far from cold. The open kitchen is flanked by pillars covered in a clear-glass mosaic, which gleam with a soft, dappled white light. Sconces (“Pottery Barn,” identified one retail-savvy companion) and black-and-white photos illuminate the clean gray room. Burnished-wood tables are set with square white plates and red-wine glasses the size of overturned hot-air balloons.
The menu has also been slickly designed for several kinds of dining. After one page of cold small plates — which diners get to see firsthand — and another of hot small plates, the self-styled “kebab lounge” offers a dozen kinds of kebabs. Selfish diners can order them as entrées for a Western-style multicourse meal. But the kebabs are also sold by the skewer, so you can integrate the grilled meat and seafood into a succession of varied small plates. My friends and I found a couple of cold dishes, a couple hot dishes, and one skewer per person to be enough for three people, with room left for dessert; with one glass of wine each, we paid about $30 a person.
Many of Ufuk Goksover’s cold plates have become household names in California: Hummus, white bean salad, fresh dolmas. But she also produces such unfamiliar dishes as Circassian chicken. Shredded breast meat is spread over the bottom of the dish and covered with a large scoop of walnut, tahini, garlic, and olive oil puree. It takes a few scoops of the smooth, rich stuff, which resembles hummus in flavor and texture, to burrow down to the anticlimactic bland chicken. Equally unfamiliar bulgur lettuce wraps have far more complexity. Bound together with tomato puree, finely chopped wheat (bulgur) becomes a sweet, soft base for little jolts of flavor — Turkish peppers, onions, dill, mint. The salad is meant to be scooped onto crisp baby romaine leaves.
The family recipes combine three or four clean, distinct Mediterranean flavors; the skill of the chef is evident in the way they play off one another. In the roasted eggplant salad, peeled strips of grilled eggplant, melting and smoky, are tossed with crunchy, sharp onions, tart tomatoes, and Anaheim chiles, all brought together with garlic and olive oil. Even more simply, a thick cross-slice of sweet celery root is served in a bowl of its bright, lemony braising liquid.
When we cut into flat zucchini cakes crusted in breadcrumbs, the oval fritters turn out to be formed of finely shredded zucchini, silky and steaming, studded with nuggets of fresh goat cheese. However, a small plate of fried calamari failed completely. The golden coating encased squid rings that had been fried so long that they shattered when pierced with a fork. I used the crispy, tough bits to scoop up dabs of the potent rustic aioli served alongside. You can find boreks, or savory pies, being sold on the street all across Turkey. Ephesus offers three: spanikopita-like layered boreks filled with spinach or ground meat, and a rolled borek, a cross between an egg roll and a meat pie. The cigar-shaped rolled borek was stuffed with a spicy mixture of ground lamb, beef, and onions.
Hakki Goksover grills all the kebabs over applewood. “Gas takes all the flavor out,” he says. You can barely see wisps of the wood smoke being sucked up into the fans — its scent never makes it to the table — but it perfumes every bite. Goksover seasons the kebabs very lightly, letting the smoke do all the work. Chunks of lamb, alternating with charred red and green peppers, onions, and golden summer squash, come off the grill just right, pink and tender. So does the kofte kebab, a long, ovoid patty of discreetly salted ground beef and lamb. Skewered prawns get a little overwhelmed by the smoke, and could have been cooked a minute or two less. But the smoke only enhances the seasonal vegetable kebabs; the grill blackens their edges but doesn’t suck out all their juices. The best kebab on the menu features big chunks of juicy top sirloin coated in a thick layer of sumac and spice.
Desserts were the most underdeveloped section of the menu. We didn’t like any of the three. Had they been served hot, we would have loved the dried figs, braised to render them soft and sweet and then stuffed with chopped nuts and chocolate. A drizzle of snappy strawberry coulis around the plate seemed as out of place as Michelle Kwan in a hockey match — honey would have matched the rich, nutty tones of the dish. We felt the same way about the raspberry sauce around the too-chilly burnt rice pudding, earthy from brown rice and only lightly caramelized. And who wants cheesecake after an echt Mediterranean meal?
Turkish food in the Bay Area is a rare treat. We’re normally offered the bare essentials — which could appear on the menu of almost any other Middle Eastern restaurant, thanks to the Ottoman Empire, which ruled most of the region (plus North Africa and southeastern Europe) for seven centuries. But one would suspect that 700 years of empire would have produced a more refined, elaborate cuisine than hummus and pita. The Goksovers stay close to the basics, but offer a glimpse of the breadth of this ancient, cosmopolitan cuisine.
February is Hole in the Wall Month again, the time of year when I do roundups on the tiny, unpretentious restaurants I discover out about — the kind that never get reviewed.
If you’re like me, you eat out as much as you eat in, but you don’t drop $40 a night on dishes with pedigrees. Everyone’s got a stable of places they go to for cheap, fast chow and perhaps a friendly face. With these restaurants decor is not a factor — in fact, the word ambiance would seem like a snide remark. Greasy burgers. Cheap Chinese. Killer pho. No-nonsense tandoori. There are some amazing bargains out there, as well as super-friendly restaurateurs running impossible-to-find joints.
So if you’d like to give your favorite hole in the wall a shot at some publicity, e-mail me at [email protected]. Tell me where to find the place and what you like about it. I’ll travel north to Crockett, south to Fremont, east to Pleasanton, or wherever else in the East Bay to find good, cheap eats. I might not have a chance to respond personally to every e-mail I receive, but I will enthusiastically read, log, and file them. In fact, I’m still popping into places that I learned about last year. — J.K.