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May 9, 2008

The Gadabout—May 9, 2008

As ancient as Turkey is, Turkish food beyond the shish kebab is still a new concept for the American palate. The country brings to mind bad puns about birds, curly mustaches, and They Might Be Giants songs far more than it does, say, creamily thick yogurt—even though the word “yogurt” is derived from Turkish. We take a surprising amount of Turkish food for granted, which is exactly why we need a place like Nazarlik.

Nazarlik, located about a mile away from the Belmont Triangle, is a humble eatery that celebrates its authenticity with homey charm. There are no belly dancers, hookah bars, or kitschy lounges like those featured at its upscale cousin A La Turka. Instead, the restaurant is small and dining room–like, with photo-slathered turquoise walls, kitchen chairs,

and cushions piled in a corner booth. You pay upfront, you bring your own alcohol, and you bus your own table. Ordering at Nazarlik is done fast-food style at a counter, but behind the scenes, we imagine the food is created in much the same way Turkish families have cooked for generations. The only thing missing is the obligatory photo of Atatürk (founder of the Republic of Turkey) common to every Turkish household. The prices match the style: Most items are $7 or less, and none are more than $15.

The repertoire of food offered at Nazarlik is small but genuinely Turkish in its blend of Mediterranean and Islamic roots. Yes, kebabs with lamb or chicken served over rice or in a pita are available, but so are other less well known items. The mujver, or pan-fried zucchini in yogurt ($4.25), made Time Out Chicago’s Top 100 Chicago Foods for 2007, in fact.

Working our way towards the truly Turkish, we started off with the traditional hummus accompanied by warm, soft pita bread ($4.99). The hummus looked more appetizing than it was—it lacked flavor behind the deceptive veil of its spice-seasoned appearance. When paired with an unadvertised potato salad comprising coriander and tomatoes, however, the hummus became as vibrant as its surroundings. A side of Turkish-style tea ($0.75), served piping hot in a small dainty glass, complemented our selections well.

The lahmacun ($3.95), or traditional Turkish “pizza,” on the other hand, was well prepared and fresh but uninspiring. Popular in various incarnations throughout the Middle East, this particular version, topped with unidentified minced meats and vegetables, bore best resemblance to a saltine with tomato sauce on top. The lahmacun was served with an equally unsalvageable side of baba ghanoush. The eggplant-to-spice ratio resulted in a strangely green, oily salad that didn’t have much taste.

Perhaps it would have been a better experience had we ordered the Çigköfte ($9.25), best described as a kind of raw-meat beef-and-couscous casserole. With hours of advance notice required before ordering, it certainly inspires hope where the baba ghanoush lacks any. The menu’s selection of desserts, with the country’s namesake and baklava, is also undoubtedly full of delight.

With the Chicago Turkish Festival coming up in two weeks and a mention in this year’s Scav Hunt list for its shadow puppet culture, Turkey is finally blipping on the American radar, and thankfully not in Iran’s shade of terrorist-orange. In the spirit of learning, Nazarlik makes a decent, cost-effective introduction to genuine Turkish food. You can get better versions of the dishes we tried elsewhere, but certainly not for cheaper, and the unexplored menu options most certainly deserve a second visit. Like the lucky eye for which Nazarlik is named, we look forward to seeing what happens in the restaurant’s future. In the meantime, we can only hope that the occasional lack of spices will be warded off.