Feast of the East

Restaurant Review: Feast of the East

By Restaurant Critic Joanna Blythman

Published @ Sunday Herald

Live music can be a hazard in restaurants, especially Middle Eastern ones. All you want to do is eat your tagine or moussaka, but then the musicians start up, signalling the arrival of gyrating belly dancers and plate-smashers.

Not so in Glasgow's top Turkish dining spot, Alla Turca. It has that magical quality that so many restaurants dismally fail to cultivate - atmosphere. After arriving on a windswept Saturday evening, walking into Alla Turca was like being back in Istanbul.

Warm and busy, it reminded me of the thrill and excitement of eating in the meyhanes (mezze bars) that you will find in Nevizade Sokak, the buzzing lane just off Beyoglu's pulsating artery, Istiklal Caddesi, where wandering musicians work the tables. At Alla Turca, you have a solitary musician, the talented Armagan Alakus, playing the soulful, romantic, and occasionally wistful saz - the slender, long-necked traditional lute of Turkey and Iran. This is beautiful music and powerfully atmospheric.

If you have only eaten Turkish food in late-night doner kebab joints in the UK, you may not appreciate what a rich and varied culinary tradition the country has, or understand just how expert Turks can be at running all types of restaurants. Alla Turca's good-humoured Turkish staff work so fast and adeptly that they almost run, but there's no panic. I would guess that the front-of-house manager knows exactly what's going on at every table at any point in time, which is more than you can say for many British “fine dining" restaurants.

Our first bottle of one of Turkey's best red wines, a 2005 Kavaklidere, represented good value at £22.50. Sadly, it was corked, so we sent it back." No problem," said the smiling manager, without even checking that we were correct. Now that's what I call service. Estimates vary, but it's thought that anything from 6%-15% of wines suffer from “cork taint" - which smells a bit like dank drains - so restaurateurs have to expect it. Too many can't judge for themselves whether the bottle is corked, and greet returns from people who can with sulks. Alla Turca reacted impeccably, and the replacement bottle that followed fulfilled expectations.

Alla Turca serves up a menu that is properly Turkish and of a good, even cooking standard. The food tastes very fresh - another hallmark of Turkish cuisine - probably because this restaurant has such a sound turnover of diners.

Our babaganus of mashed, grilled aubergine and tahini had the requisite smoky character you get from charring. You can get the measure of a Turkish eating place by how well it does its borek, those fingersize fried pastries filled with crumbly, sharp white cheese. Alla Turca's passed this acid test with flying colours.

There were textbook falafel too, friable and crusty on the outside, made with an authentic mixture of broad beans and chickpeas. Grilled hellim - that's the Turkish Cypriot answer to Greek halloumi - made an appetising mouthful rolled up in pieces of Alla Turca's pliant, hand-made flat bread. A neat salad of pumpkin, artichoke and red onion gave a nod to modernity.

Main courses here are generously proportioned. In the Ottoman-style Iskender kebab, the traditional slices of doner meat that sit on shredded flat bread, topped with tomato sauce and a scoop of that wonderful set Turkish yogurt, had been replaced by thin slices of lamb fillet whose preliminary marinade and seasoning had softened them up nicely, giving them some of the gentle texture you get from good doner.

Slow-cooked lamb shank in a rich, patiently reduced tomato sauce, capped by soft slices of aubergine (Turkish cooks excel at slow cooking) melted off the bone.

I can't tell you how they cook the rice here.

All I know is that it's terrific, slightly red (possibly from tomato), wonderfully dry and free-flowing.

I'll walk a long way up dusty, hot foreign streets to find sutlac, the milky, blancmange-like Turkish rice pudding made with ground rice, often fragrant with rose water. Alla Turca's isn't quite set enough and is too thick, with ground cinnamon hogging the foreground. But nutty, natural tasting lokum (Turkish delight) went down a treat.

This is definitely one of the most professional, well-run, assured restaurants I've eaten in for quite some time. It's the sort of place where, even in a large group, you know you will be well looked after. The music makes it more attractive still.