After having been ‘taken for a ride’ the previous evening by a taxi driver, it came as a complete delight to be dropped confidently right at the door of the Cezayir restaurant by the driver. It seemed that he had clearly delivered many a patron to this establishment, indicating to me that the evening was going to be one to add to my favorites.
Invited in by the amazing Art Nouveau type stained glass façade of this building, that was constructed in 1901 as a school by the Italian Workers’ Society, we ascended the staircase into the foyer. Here it seemed a little confusing as to which dining area we were to head to, since we were unaware of all the various rooms available for reservation.
With an array of dining spaces to choose from (Restaurant, Lounge, Café/Bar, Garden, Garden Lounge), Cezayir offers a range of atmospheres, traditional, modern, casual, intimate and outdoor all to suit a range of group sizes from 14-150 people. On this occasion we were in the cozy Garden Lounge that sports an open fire, exposed beams, a dark wooden bar and simple yet elegant décor. The red carnation and gerbera centerpieces provided a striking contrast to the chic upholstered white high backed chairs with black piping and studding.
After our coats were taken and hung up on the rack inside the enclosed Garden room, we walked toward the bar to partake in an aperitif. With a variety of Turkish selections by the bottle, the wine list offered a limited range by the glass. With a rosé in hand, I was beginning to enjoy the ambience as we waited for all the guests to arrive.
To experience the whole range of morsels and to suit the large party of diners in our group, we had pre-arranged a ‘date’ with Menu 2, 85TL including 2 glasses of wine (there are two cocktail menus and two set menus to choose from and of course the a-la carte selections.)
All the appetizers (mezeler) arrived with haste so it was possible to top our plates with the entire selection, let la dégustation begin!
I leapt into the levrek tartar (sea bass) with excitement. The unusual combination of green apple, ginger and lemon peel was enticing. The apple added a mild crunch, the ginger a refreshingly zing. Although the lemon seemed almost undetectable, the spring onion brought a welcome flavour to this well-balanced dish. But like any tartar for me a little was enough. The pairing of the Ancyra Narince with this dish complimented the flavours completely.
The Southern Anatolian paste of hot pepper was quite spicy on the tongue but pleasant and the Antakya style aubergines were soft, tasty and enjoyable with the hint of cumin. Unfortunately the vine wrapped haloumi cheese was very salty and although it boasted to contain sun dried tomatoes I couldn’t detect any. The best thing about it was the addition of the pine nuts.
Many others guests were extremely happy with the fava bean paste however for me the texture was just a little NQR (not quite right.) My dinner companion on the left suggested combining the harissa sauce from another dish. I concurred, as this created a more pleasurable taste sensation when teamed with the bean paste.
The best dish in my opinion was the chickpea balls with a condiment of hot tomato purée. These rustic falafels included a cheesy centre surprise and went well with the tomato sauce. This more chunky texture was a welcomed surprise from the usual smoothness and fine grain of most falafels. The harissa paste was the only interesting thing about the spinach börek giving it some well-needed ‘grunt’. This condiment seemed to compliment more than two of the other mezeler. Or perhaps it was just my love of spiciness talking?
With a pleasant pause, time for reflection and more conversation, the mains came out to take center stage. The chicken looked colorfully presented with dried plums accompanied by the Istanbul style raisin and almond rice. I was told it was tender and juicy with mild complimentary flavors. My choice however, was the beef stroganoff. I couldn’t remember the last time I had eaten stroganoff except for my recollection of a time when it was a regular member of my cooking repertoire.
I wasn’t sure what to expect, but out it came with a contemporary flare to it, the crispy potato shoestrings adorning the top. Although the beef could have been a little more tender, the creamy sauce was a good consistency (not too thick) with flecks of chilli spiciness adding a picante touch. Quite a large portion enabled this crunchy, creamy and chunky combination to be savored for an enjoyable length of time, however the heavy hand on the crack pepper became more apparent as my plate diminished. I was also glad that I had swapped to the Ancyra red wine, working quite nicely with this dish.
With the evening coming to a close the waiting staff promptly produced the Rococo with carob Chantilly cream. This chewy, honey-sweet crunchy/creamy combination was delightful and not too sickly sweet. The merengue was the right balance of chewy on the inside and crispy on the exterior. Although it really didn’t need the addition of the Chantilly cream visually or gastronomically.
I can clearly say that I will be returning to Cezayir to explore more of the creative and contemporary Turkish cuisine. The enormity of the building with its excellent service, comfort and style make for potential uniquely different experiences in the other dining spaces on subsequent visits.
Amatrice de bons crus et grand cuisine
Cezayir is open every day from 9 a.m. to 2 a.m.