Turk­ish cafe’s food is made with love

Daily Press (Sunday) - - The Sunday Break - By Matthew Korfhage

The rice — why was it so good? It is a ques­tion rarely worth ask­ing. But at Naci’s Cor­ner Cafe, a new home­style Turk­ish bistro at the edge of Ghent in Nor­folk, the care that owner Jale Evsen takes with her rice is also a key to un­der­stand­ing the restau­rant.

The se­cret isn’t spice. The rice and ver­mi­celli of her pi­laf, both firm and fluffy at once, blos­som with the nut­ti­ness of the grains them­selves. Be­fore adding wa­ter and chick­peas, Evsen first pa­tiently toasts the long grains of her rice over low flame to crispy white­ness, us­ing a brand of ex­tra vir­gin olive oil she must go to a dis­trib­u­tor in New Jersey to find. And if a batch comes out too sticky, the re­sult of too much wa­ter, she would rather throw it away than serve it.

That sim­ple pi­laf is more de­li­cious than it has to be, an ex­er­cise in sim­plic­ity and metic­u­lous­ness. And yet it isn't even on the menu.

It is in­stead what ar­rives as a side to each en­tree, the warm pil­low you sink into af­ter bites of curry-spiced chicken skewer or meat­stuffed egg­plant, or es­pe­cially Evsen's se­duc­tively ten­der take on köfte, the gar­lic-onion meat­balls of the Mid­dle East.

But as at Ja­panese restau­rants — where sushi afi­ciona­dos may judge a chef's pre­ci­sion by the prepa­ra­tion of the rice, or the fluffi­ness and del­i­cate sweet­ness of a hum­ble tam­ago egg dish — it is of­ten the over­looked sides that best show the heart of a restau­rant.

And at Naci's, Evsen and her small crew of cooks serve food with the same la­bo­ri­ous prepa­ra­tion she would un­der­take in her own home, whether the meat-and-bul­gur köfte that must be kneaded for an hour, or the brine on her egg­plant that keeps it from ab­sorb­ing too much oil.

That same care also shows up in her warm hos­pi­tal­ity when you en­ter her lit­tle shoe­box of a restau­rant, dec­o­rated with wood grain and plush chairs, and ad­ver­tised with a sign made by Evsen's son, Ozan. A mu­ral, by lo­cal artist Khalil Rid­dick, was still in progress on our vis­its. But the restau­rant is al­ready un­rec­og­niz­able as the up­hol­stery store it once was, re­built ac­cord­ing to a 3-D model Evsen made her­self us­ing card­board.

The 2-month-old restau­rant has been a long time com­ing, built over more than two years amid a pro­found per­sonal tragedy. Naci's was orig­i­nally meant to be called Yum Yum Köfte, a ro­man­tic dream Evsen shared with her hus­band, Naci, an ar­chi­tect who loved food so much he longed to start a restau­rant serv­ing the meals the couple made to­gether at home: He was the meat spe­cial­ist, she the veg­eta­bles.

The ex­cep­tion was her de­li­cious and meaty köfte — del­i­cate, moist, soft, heavy on pars­ley, made at the restau­rant with an 80/20 mix of beef and lamb, with­out the fatty sheep's tail she might use in Turkey. Even Naci grudg­ingly had to ad­mit that her ver­sion was some of the best he'd ever tried, a sen­ti­ment dif­fi­cult to dis­agree with when try­ing the ver­sion she now serves.

The pair de­cided to move here from North­ern Vir­ginia to start a restau­rant af­ter their two sons came to Nor­folk to at­tend Old Do­min­ion Univer­sity. But be­fore they could re­al­ize their dream, Naci fell ill, hur­ry­ing to the emer­gency room for a mys­te­ri­ous ail­ment that even­tu­ally turned out to be a fast-mov­ing form of can­cer. It turned her “hand­some bear of a man” into a much older ver­sion of him­self, she said, and he suc­cumbed just three months later.

Af­ter that, she couldn't con­tinue work­ing as a For­tune 500 ex­ec­u­tive as­sis­tant, a job that paid well but sapped her en­ergy. And so af­ter months of grief, she quit her job and painstak­ingly built the restau­rant she and her hus­band had planned — with the help of her sons and daughter, as well as her plumber, John Wright, who even­tu­ally be­came a part­ner in the restau­rant and in life.

But now, the restau­rant would be called Naci's, ded­i­cated to the man who never got to see it.

Naci's is not re­ally de­signed as a money-mak­ing en­ter­prise, says Evsen, be­yond keep­ing the restau­rant sus­tain­able. And so she re­fuses to cut cor­ners on how she makes her food.

She searched months, she said, to find the right kind of feta that isn't too crumbly or salty. And she is still hunt­ing for the right kashar cheese she de­scribes as a cross be­tween moz­zarella and Swiss. And un­like the ma­jor­ity of ca­sual Turk­ish restau­rants in Amer­ica, Evsen does not serve the coun­try's fa­mous döner ke­bab. She doesn't have the re­sources yet to do it right, and won't use the frozen meat cone that graces most gyro spots in this coun­try.

Her small menu is in­stead filled with touches that are per­sonal, even au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal. Her moist, dark-meat chicken skew­ers are spiced with curry, a fla­vor that would be un­usual in Turkey. But though she sum­mered ev­ery year in her par­ents' home coun­try, she was raised in Ger­many — and the Ger­mans will shut­tle masala spice mix into just about ev­ery­thing.

Her flaky börek, a sa­vory meat- or spinach-filled pas­try that re­sem­bles the honey-sweet baklava she also serves, is a dish she learned to make from her moth­erin-law along the coast of the Aegean Sea in Turkey, where she and Naci lived for six years as olive farm­ers. This is per­haps the root of the fas­tid­i­ous­ness about olive oil that leads Evsen to im­port ex­pen­sive Mar­mara­bir­lik, her fa­vorite brand from Turkey, be­cause she finds most oils in Amer­ica to be too bit­ter.

(She'll also ac­cept Costco's Kirk­land brand, long a se­cret weapon among dis­cern­ing chefs, for cold dishes only.)

In Turkey, her moth­erin-law taught her how to rub the dough down with olive oil and but­ter to re­tard its fer­men­ta­tion, then spread it into a mem­brane so thin that light could shine through it, be­fore fill­ing it with a tra­di­tional blend of spinach and feta, or Evsen's own per­sonal im­pro­vi­sa­tion of chicken and car­rots. Go for the chicken and car­rot ver­sion, and the con­trasts of flaky crum­ble, sa­vory meat and car­rot sweet­ness will be a many-lay­ered com­fort you didn't know you could have in your life.

The or­man ke­bab, a for­ager's dish of peas and pep­pers and car­rots, would usu­ally be a hearty red­meat stew. But Evsen's is both lighter and richer at once, swap­ping the cus­tom­ary lamb or veal for chicken, and adding a blan­ket of lus­cious bechamel sauce. Like much of her menu, it is less a wal­lop than a mas­sage to the senses, and per­haps a pre­lude to an af­ter­noon nap.

If you take in a hefty slice of Evsen's car­rot cake, sleep­y­time is al­most as­sured. The moist cake comes swad­dled in semisweet frost­ing and teem­ing with nuts and sliv­ers of car­rot, and is so mam­moth you might ask for a box be­cause there's no way you could hope to fin­ish it.

And then, of course, you do.

One take­out or­der of por­to­bello-stuffed egg­plant might have been a lit­tle soggy — per­haps the re­sult of its ride in the car, or per­haps the re­sult of a cook­ing process Evsen is still play­ing with.

And the pita bread served with your ex­cel­lent hum­mus or egg­plant-zuc­chini shak­shouka is still the ba­sic store-bought va­ri­ety, one of

the few things at Naci's that isn't la­bo­ri­ously scratch­made; she says she hopes to soon have the ca­pac­ity to make her own. She also hopes some­day to sell her fam­ily's olive oil, at the diminu­tive cafe mar­ket whose shelves she's now be­gun to fill.

The restau­rant, is, af­ter all, still a work in progress, with items flit­ting on and off the menu. An im­pro­vised köfte sub is here one day and gone the next; a meat op­tion might sud­denly ap­pear next to the ve­gan ver­sion of the karni yarek stuffed egg­plant.

But what re­mains con­stant is the sim­ple good cook­ing and the pleas­ant feel­ing of wel­come. The food served at Naci's is com­fort that warms from within, served with brac­ing Turk­ish tea in a glass so pretty it looks like it should hold a flower in­stead.

KRIS­TEN ZEIS/STAFF

Hand-rolled stuffed grape leaves at Naci’s Cor­ner Cafe in Nor­folk on Wed­nes­day.

KRIS­TEN ZEIS PHOTOS/STAFF

Naci’s sam­ple plat­ter: two köfte, two chicken shish over bul­gur and rice pi­laf, sa­vory pas­tries, and three sides.

Above: Homemade baklava. Left: For­est ke­bab with chicken, fea­tur­ing por­to­bello mush­rooms, pota­toes, car­rots, peas, onions, oregano and dill topped with a béchamel sauce and cheese along with three sides.

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