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story.lead_photo.caption Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/HELAINE R. WILLIAMS The Adana Shish Kebab comes with Mediterranean salad and mixed vegetables or fries.

Istanbul Mediterranean Restaurant

Address: Pleasant Ridge Town Center, 11525 Cantrell Road, Little Rock)

Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Sunday

Cuisine: Mediterranean

Credit Cards; V, MC, AE, D

Alcoholic beverages: No

Wheelchair accessible: Yes

Carryout: Yes

(501) 223-9332

For two people who had not eaten Mediterranean food in quite awhile, Istanbul, the Mediterranean restaurant in Pleasant Ridge Town Center bursting with moderately priced fare, was a welcome destination.

And Istanbul had us at the baklava. More about that later.

Our inaugural visit was about 6:30 on a mildly rainy, non-busy evening. We were welcomed by one of two servers into a small, somewhat careworn but cozy space decorated with scenic, virtual-vacation wall art and exuding a laid-back, easy atmosphere. Only a couple of other dining parties were there; things started to pick up some 30 minutes later.

Appetizers are divided into Cold and Hot. We tried an Appetizer Trio ($9.99), and went with Cigar Pastries — phyllo flutes stuffed with feta and mozzarella cheeses, then fried; falafel, vegetable patties of mashed garbanzo beans, herbs, grains and spices, then fried; and Spinach Pastries, baked phyllo squares filled with spinach, feta cheese, onions and herbs. The falafel initially seemed "an acquired taste," but tasted better the next day. The spinach pastry, tough on one side, tasted OK. The cigar pastry, however, was superb, a seductive, tart take on the grilled-cheese sandwich.

At Istanbul, you're sure to get your vegetables. Mediterranean salad, along with pita bread, comes with the dinner plates. For an additional side, you can choose from cooked vegetables or fries. Dinners are also served with small cups of creamy white Cacik dip, tasty enough to scarf down by itself.

Gallery: Istanbul Mediterranean Restaurant

The menu describes the Adana Shish Kebab ($10.99) as "a chunky, juicy, ground beef kebab blended with crushed red pepper and seasoned with herbs and spices, flamed-grilled to perfection." It came in the shape of an unwrapped burrito and lived up to the description; it was delicious enough to elicit a wish that more American hamburgers tasted like this. The Chicken a la Turca ($12.99), marinated, boneless, chunky chicken thigh meat slices, also flame-grilled, was appropriately tender and also well and evenly seasoned. The entrees arrived in relatively fast order, but not fast enough to make diners feel rushed or arouse any suspicion of old food warmed over.

The star of the Istanbul show, however, is its baklava ($2.99), a pair of diamond-shaped pieces featuring pistachio, and, although liberally honey-sweetened, is not the often-seen drippier version. The phyllo, specked with a spice of some kind, has a richer flavor than we're accustomed to. The profiterole, a handful of vanilla cream puffs topped with chocolate sauce and also costing $2.99, was more ordinary, but good. We didn't see any evidence of the sweet coconut flakes the menu said would be sprinkled on the profiterole; we didn't miss them since we're not big fans of coconut flakes. The restaurant also offers oven-baked, Turkish rice pudding (also $2.99) as a dessert choice.

A return to Istanbul two Fridays later revealed more people in the mood for Mediterranean; after a time, the small dining room had filled up.

We began the evening with Tomato Soup. The $2.99 cups were substantial. We took ours with cheese and were as satisfied as we expected to be.

The entrees were a delight, although not exactly as described in the menu. The Salmon Platter ($12.99) consisted of 8 ounces of salmon — no sauce or sweet red peppers, as the menu had promised, but it was blessed with just the right mix of tenderness, juiciness and seasoned flavor and was nothing short of scrumptious. A Combo Platter ($15.99) consists of three of the meats featured in other dishes. Istanbul knows how to do lamb: The Lamb Shish Kebab — chunks of skewered leg of lamb supposedly with grape tomatoes and onions and marinated in lemon juice, olive oil and spices, then grilled -- was melt-in-the-mouth wonderful, though it was missing the grape tomatoes. The Kofta Kebab, slider-sized ground-beef patties blended with spaces and flame grilled, was reminiscent of the Adana. And we revisited the Chicken a la Turca, which was as flawless as it had been previously.

This night was much busier than the first. It took the server, the second of the two men waiting tables during the first visit, some time to get back to us to refill water glasses and ask about dessert, which resulted in a reorder of the baklava. But he, too, was friendly and helpful, offering water to-go along with the takeout boxes. And speaking of to-go, both nights saw their share of carryout business. The first server, in fact, offered us coupons from a carryout service.

The restaurant also serves a fair selection of wraps and sandwiches and doner platters (a blend of meats mixed with "select" spices and vertically slow-roasted) as well as Turkish Coffee, hot specialty teas and the ubiquitous selection of carbonated beverages and plain iced tea. Istanbul strikes the right chord of mild prices and portions generous enough to warrant take-home boxes. The food is even better the next day. And when the weather is right, the restaurant stands ready with sidewalk seating.

Weekend on 02/14/2019

Print Headline: Hungry? Istanbul has your baklava


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