December 9, 2019, 0:56

Turkish Food with Attitude at Lokanta

Turkish Food with Attitude at Lokanta

Hospitality takes many forms. At Lokanta, a Turkish restaurant that opened in April, it manifests, counterintuitively, in the blustery bearing of the chef and owner, Orhan Yegen. There are very few people who can make slightly grumpy, brusque confidence come across as alluring and even charming. Yegen, a veteran restaurateur who also owns Sip Sak, in Manhattan (the menus overlap significantly), is one of them, with a reputation that precedes him; the thrill of hearing his dramatic proclamations is one of the draws of his establishments. “If I was a normal person, I wouldn’t have come to this country,” he declared one evening in May, as he surfed around Lokanta’s dining room. “I’m not normal—I’m an artist.”

Fish is prepared and served simply, with lemon, salad, and rice.

Photograph by Haruka Sakaguchi for The New Yorker

The other draw here is the food, which is, if not art per se, certainly artful. The voguish approach to vegetables these days often involves doing very little to them, so it’s refreshing to find that Yegen’s faithful adherence to the traditions of his native country largely dictates the opposite. Cooked fava beans are mashed into a paste that is smooth but still chunky, sprinkled with fresh dill and boldly seasoned with a flavor that’s familiar but at first difficult to place: cinnamon! This appears on the “small plates” (translation: meze) part of the menu, which also includes leeks that have been confited in olive oil until they fall apart into meltingly luscious sheets, served cold; tender braised artichoke hearts, topped with whole favas and more dill; and fluffy squares of what’s described as a pancake but is more like a kugel made with shredded zucchini and carrots.

Lokanta is one of only a handful of Turkish restaurants in Astoria, and one of relatively few in New York.

Photograph by Haruka Sakaguchi for The New Yorker

Yegen puts equal effort into meat, particularly lamb. You might think that one restaurant does not need seven lamb entrées (of fifteen total), but Lokanta (which means “restaurant” in Turkish) proves you wrong. Glossy shreds of roasted lamb are spectacular mixed with warm rice, currants, caramelized onions, and allspice, then gently molded into a dome; tender, saucy hunks of braised lamb crown a bowl of beguilingly creamy eggplant purée, which takes on an almost stretchy texture thanks to the addition of dehydrated yogurt. As a special one recent night, ground lamb was formed into a log-shaped adana kebab, grilled until crispy and smoky, and served on an intoxicatingly oily slab of fried flatbread.

A meze, or small plate, of mashed fava beans is seasoned with cinnamon and topped with fresh dill.

Photograph by Haruka Sakaguchi for The New Yorker

There is beef, too, rolled into rustic meatballs and served simply with potatoes, or sealed into dainty dumplings called manti, which are blanketed in a thick, garlicky yogurt sauce and drizzled with chili oil. Seafood is less successful. A pescatarian could be happy with expertly prepared if unexciting fillets of sea bass or salmon, but an intriguing-sounding shrimp casserole with tomatoes and kasseri cheese (made of sheep’s and goat’s milk) is a rare miss, its scorching temperature giving way to surprising blandness. For dessert, return to vegetables: among the standard rice pudding and baklava, a dish of barely sweetened baked butternut squash, topped with whipped cream and chopped walnuts, stands out.

For dessert, baked butternut squash is lightly sweetened with sugar and finished with walnuts and a dollop of whipped cream.

Photograph by Haruka Sakaguchi for The New Yorker

Lokanta is one of a small handful of Turkish restaurants in Astoria—a neighborhood that’s long been associated with Greek food but has, in fact, grown quite culinarily diverse—and one of relatively few in the city. Its most important distinction, however, may be the weekends-only breakfast menu. For years, I have searched in vain for a decent Turkish breakfast in New York, longing to re-create a dreamy morning I spent in Istanbul at an open-air café in view of the Bosporus, noshing on a simple but seductive array of fresh bread, cheese with honey and marmalade, hard-boiled eggs, olives, cucumbers, and tomatoes.

Finally, here is a similar platter—plus baked eggs, clotted cream, flaky gozleme (which the menu calls “Turkish quesadillas”), and pastries, including braided sesame rings known as simit. There is no glittering turquoise strait to gaze upon at Lokanta, and the restaurant’s interior resembles nothing so much as a West Elm showroom, with tropical-leaf wallpaper and generic-looking gold tchotchkes. One Saturday morning, I felt transported nonetheless—and grateful to Yegen for being so sure of himself. (Entrées $19-$22.) ♦

Sourse: newyorker.com

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