Of all the Turkish restaurants scattered about this kebab-loving city, it seems Istanbul Grill is the one young Turks and old Turks alike flock to on a regular basis. Had it featured a few bald Turks wearing headbands around their raw, stubbly scalps, the dining room would've resembled any in Istanbul. That grand megalopolis, in case you weren't aware, is the hair transplant capital of the world, and seeing scores of men walking around the city looking like Ray Liotta in Hannibal was the single most bizarre thing I witnessed in Istanbul. Well, that and watching Salt Bae eating a salad.
Perhaps the tabouli he seemed to be enjoying was as good as the one included in Istanbul Grill's mixed appetizer plate ($15.99). It's drizzled with bright, sweet pomegranate molasses that's also blended into the fiery ezme, a chopped mélange of walnuts, tomato, onions, parsley, peppers, garlic and tomato paste. Like other dips on that plate — hummus, baba ghanoush and yogurty, dill-essenced cacik — it was scooped up with shreds of piping-hot, sesame-flecked lavash ($3.99), puffed to the size of a small dirigible.
"This is how to begin a meal," said my pal, as more and more folks poured into the dining room, got comfy and, uhh, let their hair down. Seeing servers deftly navigate the crowd while balancing cups of Turkish tea on large trays enticed us to order the auburn-hued potable. It's no pale ale, but the tea paired with sujuk pide ($9.99), the boat-shaped pizza and staple of Turkish cookery, just fine. Of note were the thick rounds of cured beef sausage nestled into the gooey kasseri cheese.
But if it's meat you want, it doesn't come much meatier than Istanbul Grill's protein-packed mixed grill ($59.99). The enormous platter — heaped with eight skewers' worth of meat, wonderfully cooked rice, grilled tomatoes and fiery finger peppers that'll put hair on your chest, if not your head — could easily feed a famished family of four.
A side of pickled red cabbage lends a crunchy, zingy counterpoint to all the meat and, in case it wasn't clear, there's a lot of meat. It was served close to sizzling when it arrived at our table, making plush beef tenderloin and cubes of chicken shish kebab all the plusher.
But as is always the case with Turkish grilling, adana kebabs, whether chicken, lamb or beef, are the most flavorful, because of the fattier cuts used in the ground meat. "Fat is flavor" is to meat as "location, location, location" is to real estate, or so says Aaron Franklin of the legendary Franklin Barbecue in Austin, Texas. I'm sure Istanbul Grill's head chef, Hakan Demirdamar, would agree, but that doesn't mean a little garlic, red peppers and parsley can't be ground into the mix too. After all, that's what makes adana adana.
Not to be outdone were glistening kofta kebabs, made from seasoned ground lamb and seared with grill marks. These patties were arguably our favorite of them all, even more than the lamb chops ($24.99). "You have to try our lamb chops," our server politely suggested, and we covetously obliged. Tender, yes. Flavorful, yes. But more luscious and lip-smacking than the chops served at Café 34 Istanbul? Not quite.
IG's kunefe ($7.99), on the other hand, certainly contends with the cheese-filled, phyllo-threaded, pistachio-topped pastry served by their rivals on International Drive. It's an absolute favorite of mine, and chef Hakan's version is unexpectedly devoid of the syrup that typically pools around the base. It made for a significantly lighter ending, which we all kinda liked. But was it better than Café 34's? Possibly ... but just by a hair.