Mixing flavors at Istanbul Grill

    When I was three or four, my mom once asked me what relationship was the most important in life. I said friendship. She wasn’t happy. She wanted to hear that the mother-and-child love was the most important, to which I explained that mother and child should treat each other like friends, with respect and trust and so on, thereby making the relationship a friendship. For all these years, my mom has been my best friend, but I’ve had other amazing friendships too. Some last, some don’t. Some fade, some strengthen. Some are built over the world wide web, some are formed through sleepless nights struggling over assignments. You know what the best thing about non-family friends is? You get to choose them. You get to hang out with people who are different from you, but mix so well with you, like salt and lemon. Or how about this, like yogurt and meat?

    Iskender kebab - lamb and beef on fried pide bread with yogurt

    What are you smoking, Mai, yogurt and meat? Yep. Yogurt and thin slices of döner (beef and lamb), blanketing a bed of dice butter-roasted pide bread (the Turkish name of pita bread). It is carnivore festival. If you ever feel like you are ready to chow down a cow in two minutes, Middle Eastern restaurants are the place to roll. They beat Texas BBQ houses by miles in the blunder of sheer meat.  BBQ houses at least try to give you a salad (with dressing, but still), a few starchy objects like toasts and buns, a side or two of cole slaw, green bean, corn, or whatever skimmishly healthy. The Persians smirk at such disguise. If you want meat, you get meat, either in a giant ball or in a giant mount. The doner overwhelms any trace of pide bread there might have been. Then the refreshingly sour yogurt overwhelms the doner, turning the fibrous meaty texture into a shivering juicy touch. The combination is like a racist joke among friends, you know it isn’t right, but you laugh anyway because it’s wickedly funny.

    Meze-tabagi (mixed appetizer)

    Anyhow, to temper the protein surplus, our group order a veggie appetizer plate to share. The meze tabagi (mixed meze) has seven constituents, clockwise from the lemon wedge: Tabuli (a mix of diced green onion, tomatoes and herbs), Ezme (minced tomatoes, red pepper, walnuts and herbs), dolma (spiced rice wrapped in grape leaves), Patlican Salata (smashed eggplant salad with onion and bell pepper), Pirasa (leeks, carrots, rice and onion), Taze Fasulye (green beans), and Humus (mashed chickpeas and sesame paste). All seven mixes except the humus are seasoned with olive oil and lemon juice. All are amazingly tasty on pide bread, especially the eggplant.

    All we have up to this point is, literally, a sour meal. Lemon juice in the appetizer, yogurt in the entree. Then we order baklava for dessert. You know how a cookie tastes after you suck on a lemon wedge, right? Extra sweet. Like eating a brick of brown sugar. So my friend damps the sucrose flood by some bitter black coffee. A strong, nice mix.

    Baklava and coffee

    Address: Istanbul Grill (in the Village area around Rice University)
    5613 Morningside Drive
    Houston, TX 77005
    (713) 526-2800
    (Double parking is allowed/necessary, so don’t be surprised when a waiter asks to move your car to let another customer drive out of the lot.)

    Other Persian restaurants I’ve visited:
    1. Cafe Renaissance downtown Palo Alto
    2. Alborz restaurant on Center Street, Berkeley
    3. Azerbaijan Cuisine on Fulton Street, Berkeley

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