Turkish cafe’s food is made with love
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.
Hand-rolled stuffed grape leaves at Naci’s Corner Cafe in Norfolk on Wednesday.
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.