Ilker "Iliano" Yuksel was vacationing in the Bay Area with his mother in 1999 and thought the region presented more opportunities than in his native Turkey. He stayed. Working his way through local Turk-owned Italian restaurants, he was quickly up to speed on the nuances of Bay Area restauranteering. He had a head start, having grown up in the restaurant business in northern Turkey.
Noting the dearth of Turkish eateries in the area, in 2005 Yuksel opened Cafe Baklava Mediterranean Grill on Castro Street in Mountain View. Using mom's recipes, he specialized in eastern Mediterranean plates. In June, he leveraged his success and opened in Palo Alto in a space that has housed a variety of Tex-Mex and Asian restaurants over the years, most recently Bistro d'Asie.
Decor at the Palo Alto Baklava has the feel of a contemporary Istanbul restaurant minus the views of the Bosporus. The wood-raftered ceiling mimics the hardwood floors, while a stone-topped bar lines one wall under teardrop pendant lights. The opposite wall has a long banquette beneath a hand-painted mural. There are booths and linen-lined tables as well. In pleasant weather, articulated doors open to al fresco curbside dining. It's a cozy, inviting interior.
Turkish cuisine is a synthesis of Central Asian, Middle Eastern, Balkan and Mediterranean. Like most cuisines, Turkish was forged by history and geography, and passionate and inventive chefs.
Baklava's menu varies somewhat from lunch to dinner. At midday, there are burgers and wraps; at dinner, more grilled meats and entrees. Both menus offer a variety of salads and mezes: small-dish appetizers. I'll focus on the dinner menu for this report.
First off, the complimentary warm pita bread with sun-dried tomato sauce could be seriously addicting. It was challenging not to fill up before any courses were served.
For starters, I found the baba ghanoush ($7) fresh, tangy and appetizing. The eggplant had been charcoal-grilled, then mashed and mixed with tahini oil, yogurt, garlic and extra-virgin olive oil.
Sigara boregi ($8) were four deep-fried cylinders of phyllo dough stuffed with feta cheese, potatoes and parsley. The "cigars" were crisp and fryer-hot, dense and flavorful.
Saksuka ($7) is a classic Turkish meze made with fried eggplant and potatoes, grilled peppers, tomato and onions. Baklava's noteworthy version was served with an amped-up garlic cacik (yogurt cucumber) sauce.
Composed of skewered and flame-broiled spicy ground beef mixed with green bell peppers, the Adana kebab ($13) was a long thin brochette of meat. Although there were more subtle spices in the tasty mix, it was cumin and coriander that lingered on the tongue.
My favorite dish was the Beyti kebab ($17). Flame-broiled, seasoned ground beef was wrapped in thin lavash bread then topped with both a marinara sauce and a light garlic-yogurt sauce. The dish was similar to a meat-filled lasagna but a tad chewier because of the lavash, and tangier because of the yogurt. The portion was generous and the flavors multi-layered.
The ground lamb moussaka ($17) with grilled eggplant, fresh tomato and green bell pepper, topped with béchamel sauce was piping hot, robust and irresistible.
Tavuk shish kebab ($13) is marinated chunks of chicken breast, skewered with peppers and onions and flame-broiled. The chicken was moist and melt-in-the-mouth tender. The word "skewered" appears often on the Baklava menu but foods are taken off the skewers before being served. Diners need not worry about coaxing reluctant utensils.
The combo kebab ($17) consisted of adana kebab (beef), kuzu kebab (lamb) and tavuk shish kebab (chicken). Lots of tender meat on this dish: a good way to try all the meat options at once.
Long-grained basmati rice pilaf accompanied most entrees, and vegetables were fresh but redundant — the same bell pepper, broccoli and various squashes graced nearly every plate. I realize that the cooking process of skewering limits the possibilities. Nonetheless, there was a tedium to the presentation, especially with the grilled meats.
Desserts? Baklava ($7), of course. The phyllo-dough pastry filled with nuts was sweet, but not overly. Four big pieces per order, plenty for two. I suppose there is such a thing as bad baklava, but my uneducated Turkish palate probably can't tell much difference between superb and just pretty good baklava. This tasted good to me.
But then, I knew the kunefe ($7) was a sensational dessert as soon as the waiter brought it to the table. Two layers of shredded, then baked phyllo dough were filled with a thin layer of cheese, and served in a puddle of house-made syrup and sprinkled with pistachio nuts. The quasi-cake was aromatic and artistic, crisp and flavor-packed, sweet but not cloying.
The wine list leans heavily on California but there is representation from around the world. One evening, we ordered a Turkish red wine, Kavikidere Kalecik Boregi ($55 regularly, $27.50 on special) from the central Anatolia region. The ruby-colored wine was light, well-balanced and fruity with a wisp of cocoa-vanilla on the nose. It paired perfectly with the food.
Baklava is also running a great special on wines into 2011: half-price on every full bottle on the menu Sunday through Thursday.
With so many ethnic food choices in downtown Palo Alto, I hope Baklava doesn't get lost in the shuffle. The food is well-prepared, fresh, healthy and nicely presented. The decor is contemporary and the ambiance lively, and that great wine deal makes a visit worthwhile.
445 Emerson St., Palo Alto
Weekdays: Lunch 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; dinner 4-11 p.m. Sat.: Lunch: 11 a.m.-4 p.m.; dinner 4-11 p.m. Sun.: Lunch: 11 a.m.-4 p.m.; dinner 4-10 p.m.